Tristan und Isolde

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2011, 12:00am

Tristan und Isolde
Leipzig Opera
HK Cultural Centre Grand Theatre
Reviewed: Mar 18

Tristan und Isolde, the epic opera by Wagner that provided a turning point in music, continues to exercise performers and keep directors bickering over its interpretation.

Before the curtain rises, English knight of yore Tristan has already met tender-hearted Irish princess Isolde, having upset her with a murderous act. Fate casts him defenceless at her feet, but the softness at her centre stays her vengeful arm.

On stage, we find the tables turned: Tristan is shipping a subjugated Isolde to Cornwall, where she is to marry King Mark. Isolde contrives to give Tristan and herself a deadly poison, but handmaid Brangaene substitutes a love potion, turning enmity to infatuation. King Mark soon twigs to this departure from the script, rewarding Tristan with a sword blow, ending his life, but failing to break the amorous bond to Isolde.

For this Leipzig Opera production, director Willy Decker has a boat anchored centre-stage, ostensibly the skiff in which the vulnerable Tristan (Stefan Vinke) first encountered Isolde (Jennifer Wilson) and a plausible metaphor for the pod that incubated their love, inures them to the choppy waves of present reality and finally entombs them in perpetuity. A more abstruse stroke was to have Tristan slice out his eyes instead of taking a blow to the ribs, with Isolde following suit.

Unfortunately, both singers were short on acting skills, which reduced their appearances in the final act to a hammy blind man's buff. Wilson's vocal delivery had its opulent moments; Vinke's voice showed stamina but was lighter than expected for this heldentenor role.

As Brangaene, Susan Maclean gave the most satisfying performance, matching vocal flexibility with dramatic edge and a natural stage movement; Anton Keremidtchiev, as Tristan's companion Kurvenal, was in a similar class. Other roles were played by Matthew Best (King Mark), Jurgen Kurth (Melot), Timothy Fallon (herdsman/seaman) and Andreas David (steersman).

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra responded with warmth and precision to Axel Kober's excellent direction. Wolfgang Gussmann's set design subtly supported the action; his costumes came colourfully coded, though the reason for progressing from mediaeval sackcloth to trilby and tie wasn't immediately apparent.

Sung in German; the English surtitles were appalling.