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Ben Heppner as Tristan and Ann Petersen as Isolde [Photo by David Massey courtesy of Welsh National Opera]
31 May 2012

Tristan und Isolde, Welsh National Opera

Yannis Kokkos originally directed and designed Tristan und Isolde as a co-production for Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera nearly 20 years ago. The production’s latest revival, directed by Peter Watson, was premiered at the Wales Millennium Centre on 19 May 2012.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Sailor: Simon Crosby Buttle; Helmsman: Julian Boyce; Isolde: Ann Petersen; Brangäne: Susan Bickley; Kurwenal: Phillip Joll; Tristan: Ben Heppner; Melot: Simon Thorpe; King Marke: Matthew Best; Shepherd: Simon Crosby Buttle. Conductor: Lothar Koenigs. Director and Designer: Yannis Kokkos. Revival Director: Peter Watson. Choir and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff, 19th May 2012.

Above: Ben Heppner as Tristan and Ann Petersen as Isolde [Photo by David Massey courtesy of Welsh National Opera]


A work the size of Tristan und Isolde is something of a challenge for a touring company like WNO and this production will only be played in Cardiff (19/5, 26/5, 2/6) and Birmingham (16/6) with a concert version at the Edinburgh Festival.

The production has worn well and Kokkos’s sets still look very handsome. Kokkos provides a fixed structure of a frame with a frame, and within this uses semi-abstract sets to evoke the ship in act 1, the forest in act 2 and the rocks of Kareol in act 3, in generally cool grey tones. In doing so he gives himself a fluid and flexible acting area. Costumes are timeless, evoking medieval but with quite a heavy reliance on that old stand-by, the great coat. The results mean that the women looked elegant and the men suitably heroic.

Kokkos has not specific axe to grind in the production, no psychological idée fixe and he seems content to tell the story with clarity, and certainly no dramatic additions such as Brangäne’s liaison with Kurwenal during act 2 (in the recent Covent Garden production).

In act 1, Tristan (Ben Heppner) and Kurwenal (Phillip Joll) are on the upper level, behind a scrim, with the the action of the ship evoked in a series of tableaux, whilst at the front Isolde (Ann Petersen) and Brangäne (Susan Bickley) are at the front on the lower level, separated physically and emotionally from the men. In act 2, the forest forms the back-drop for the long sweep of stairs on which the lovers’ meeting takes place. This is not a production where Tristan and Isolde never touch; Kokkos arranges the love-duet into a series of static scenes where the lovers intertwine. For act 3 the set is reduced to a single, huge slab sloping down the stage, resting at the rear on the rocks from which the Shepherd (Simon Crosby Buttle) keeps look-out.

Within this, there was a lot of scope for drama, this opera essentially relying on the interactions between the principals. Here the revival director does not seem to have been able to engender a real dramatic spark between Heppner and Petersen. In act 1, Petersen delivered Isolde’s curse with brilliant vehemence and gleaming tone, but in her scene with Heppner’s Tristan, the two seemed just a little too polite with each other. We relied on the music to transport us. The same happened in act 2, where non action of the love duet very much relied upon the music to give it dramatic impulse. In their solo moments both Heppner and Petersen proved acute, so it was a shame that the two did not develop their relationship more.

Petersen is a young Danish soprano who is developing as a dramatic soprano. Recent engagements have included her first Leonore and Marschallin, along with Elsa, Elizabeth and Ariadne. She has further Isoldes lined up plus Senta, the Empress (Die Frau ohne Schatten) and Sieglinde. That her progress to more dramatic roles is being carefully considered is confirmed by the way she sang Isolde with a voice of great lyric beauty. Her voice rode the orchestra at the crucial points, but she did not force the tone. Conductor Lothar Koenigs seemed to be a sympathetic partner, not pushing the orchestra towards drowning the soprano.

Petersen had a good feel for the text; her coloration of the words was always notable. This was a dramatic performance, certainly not one where the voice was content to coast over Wagner’s luxuriant orchestration. Physically as well, Petersen is an apt performer, ensuring that the unspoken/unsung moments of drama tell for as much as the spoken ones. She was at her best in this in act 1, where there is much that an acute Isolde like Petersen can do to develop the drama.

She was a strong and equal partner to Heppner in the love duet, each egging the other on musically towards the ultimate coitus interruptus of the climax. Here her performance was less dramatic, and you sensed a desire to allow the music space. Though, as I have said, I feel more could have been made of this scene.

Her account of the Liebestod was beautifully rapturous. At all times she preserved the beauty of tone and moulded Wagner’s phrases intelligently. Kokkos phased out the drama during this scene, gradually focusing attention on the single figure of the transfigured Isolde to close the action.

Having been through a difficult period with his voice, attention inevitably focused on Ben Heppner’s Tristan. I had missed hearing him in London when he cancelled due to illness, so was pleased to catch up with him in the role in Cardiff. Heppner remains a hugely vivid and dramatic performer, one who can be intensely expressive notwithstanding his bulk. His size meant that, inevitably, Tristan had a substantial and heroic presence from the start. His voice has lost its burnished beauty of tone, but retains a massive, granite-like grandeur. The feeling that Heppner was hewing the tenor part out of rock contributed immensely to his performance. Heppner’s Tristan was a warrior who had suffered and would continue to do so, achieving even the rapture of the love duet with difficulty.

His voice took time to warm up and I was worried at first that he might have tuning problems. But things settled down to a feeling of rough-hewn grandeur. In the quieter moments, particularly in the opening of the love duet, Heppner achieved a beauty of tone which matched that of Petersen. Though at the top of his voice there was a certain tightness, a lack of freedom at times. It has to be admitted that he noticeably tired during the performance, with odd notes failing to register properly. But in act 3, he was simply astonishing, achieving a degree of dramatic transfiguration that I would not have believed. Here was a massive character, really suffering.

Susan Bickley’s warm and intensely dramatic Brangäne was one of the strong points of act 1. She formed a strong and believable link with Petersen’s Isolde and Bickley’s vivid performance helped anchor the drama. As a singer, Bickley never ceases to amaze me, she has a wide repertoire and a knack of making a role her own, whether the composer is Handel, Berlioz, Wagner or George Benjamin. Strong Brangänes cannot make a performance of this opera, but with principals as strong as Petersen and Heppner, Bickley was able to contribute to the powerful ensemble feeling of the opera.

Phillip Joll’s Kurwenal was a bluff, old soldier figure; warm and sympathetic with intense regard for Tristan. He provided rock-like support for Heppner’s dramatic power in act 3.

Matthew Best was a committed and intense King Marke. He is one of the best around today and deserved every moment of the long applause he received at the end. But I have to confess that I generally find King Marke a prosy bore and that Best did not quite convince me otherwise. Marke’s long solo at the end of act 2 requires a very, very special touch to pull one’s attention off the love duet. Though Best acquitted himself intelligently, he did not quite manage to pull focus the way he should.

Simon Thorpe was dramatically committed in the role of Melot, Simon Crosby Buttle was nicely mellifluous both as the sailor and the shepherd, with Julian Boyce as the Helmsman.

Lothar Koenigs conducted with sympathy and a good ear for accompanying the singers. He has clearly developed a good relationship with the orchestra and drew a strong performance from them with some good individual solo playing. Koenigs speeds were on the moderate to fast side, but the music never felt rushed. He seemed content to let the drama flow. There weren’t the slow speeds and architectonic feel you get with some conductors, which can be a distinct advantage when it comes to running time.

Any performance of Tristan und Isolde is a landmark and this was anything but a routine revival. The combination of Heppner’s heroic, rough-hewn Tristan with Petersen’s mellifluously intelligent Isolde and Koenigs’ sympathetic accompanying ensured a memorable evening, even if dramatic sparks did not quite fly the way I would have liked.

To a certain extent the virtues of Kokkos’s production are negative, in that it does not get in the way of the music and Kokkos does not try to re-make the work in his own image. But where a company can afford to revive Tristan und Isolde only rarely, and when many of the audience may be seeing it for the first time, this clarity of style can become a positive virtue.

Robert Hugill

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