Being at the Royal Opera House Tristan und Isolde a second time is good because the real beauty of this production is how subtle it really is. Forget the still photos of the sets, they're misleading. Again, this is a reference to tradition - the tradition of those like Alfred Roller who realized that electricity transformed stagecraft, opening new frontiers never possible before. Imagine if Wagner had lived to see electric light? Given Wagner's obsession in this opera with night and day, light and dark, he'd have leapt at the possibilities new technology offered. All that Cosima-era rigidity blinds us to the fact that Wagner was a radical, who challenged all assumptions about opera in his time. That's why he revolutionized music theatre.
He was also interested in cutting-edge stagecraft, which was why Bayreuth was built, not as a mausoleum but as a place where he could do whatever he liked to achieve his dreams, without being restrained by the usual opera house systems. Remember how much trouble he took to get a state of the art dragon for the Ring? That doesn't mean he wanted the same dragon cranked out forever. If he'd had electricity, film or computers, he'd be out there using them.
So this new production is in fact a lot closer to the spirit of Wagner's stagecraft than many realize. The flat surfaces on this set come alive with light, taking on shades and hues no painted set could ever do. This production is an elaborate symphony of light, as if the music were being made visible. Silver, pearl, dove grey, oyster, silk, pewter, charcoal, myriad nuances of colour constantly changing and moving.
The diagonal wall is highly textured, with reflective particles embedded, which sparkle softly. The huge curtain behind the main stage is a dark shade of burgundy which changes hue. Because light effects can be so sensitively controlled, this offers variety that isn't possible by other means.
Moreover there are many different light sources and angles, some cutting across each other in amazing ways. So singers cast several shadows at once, in different directions. These silhouettes "speak". In Act One Isolde's shadow looms huge, almost to the ceiling. As Brangäne moves away from Isolde, her own shadow shrinks because the angle changes. In Act Three, Tristan's show eclipses Kurnewal, as they do life, and then their shadows. Shadows create a new, unearthly perspective.
Now I understand why the diagonal wall is so important. All these patterns of light and angles are carefully calculated, in relation to the music and to the movements of the singers on stage. Perhaps sight lines in the uppermost galleries furthest to the left may be lost, but the gain is this beautiful and utterly unique symphony of light.
By the way, yes, there is a ship. But note how Wagner himself introduces it. Isolde's first words are "Wo sind wir?" . Of course ! When you are inside a ship you don't see what's outsiide it. It looks like any other room, the sea doresn't have to be visible. it's in the music. Throughout the opera, Wagner stresses how things appear differently from different perspectives. Loy is onbe of the most musically literate of directors and understands the score from this deeperlevel. So no need to depict Isolde and Brangäne fills pinned to the sails. When they do go up, the lights frame a mast and rigging. As always, read the score. Proper debate about this production has been hijacked by those who think that they and only they know what the opera is, even more so than Wagner did,
Then the acting! Incredibly detailed and subtle. Heppner's Tristan is a suicide waiting to happen. That's why he confronts Isolde asking her to kill him, and why he falls on Melot's knife. Death by cop! Heppner is far too good to pension off because he doesn't look like a flash young blade. But Christof Loy's direction turns him into a hero of a different kind. Heppner on board the ship is so wracked by his demons that his whole body language is tense - he even bites his nails. Tristan comes from what probably is an all-male environment so he's even less likely than most men to understand his inner feelings. All his life he's buried his unhappiness by displacement activity and now for whatever reason he can't keep up the image.
So he can't face Isolde except by brutish means. Kurnewal comes from this emotionally crippled environment too, but he accepts it at face value. In the last act, when Tristan pours out his emotions, he tries to connect to Kurnewal by flicking his hair. It's a classic male way of seeking intimacy without daring to commit. Kurnewal buys into the macho mindset so much that he realizes that Isolde is somehow dangerous though he hasn't the depth to figure out why. So he postures like a big man and takes it out on little Brangäne. Watch Kurnewal's last moments. Suddenly one-dimensional man realizes just how complicated life is, and for the first time in his life, there's nothing he can do about it. So he addresses Tristan, but can't cross the space between them.
Lots and lots more....this is a production that needs to be seen again. It asks a lot of the listener, but it repays the effort.
The irony is that knocking directors as bogeymen has become a sport. There have been hundreds of modern productions, for at least 50 years. Some good, some bad, most a mix. Some have been infinitely worse than this Tristan und Isolde - think of Tim Albery's Flying Dutchman that turned the Dutchman into a clone of Daland. Nobody objected to that. The irony is that Christof Loy is a director who pays scrupulous attention to the music and builds his work around the score, like his work or not. But this production had the misfortune to come along right after all that publicity about the booing of Tosca at the Met. The sad fact is "intellectual" these days is an epithet. See HERE for main piece and HERE for First impressions.