Alex Ollé (one of the artistic directors of La Fura dels Baus) brings the 2011 Lyon production of Wagner’s music drama Tristan und Isolde, to the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, providing an unusual visual accompaniment to the opera through the use of a symbolic, abstract set. The cast worked diligently, giving their best in a generally static but aesthetic performance with the predominating hemispherical stage set (conceived by Alfons Flores) in convex, concave, then convex form as each act of the action played out.

Iréne Theorin (Isolde) and Stefan Vinke (Tristan) © A. Bofill
Iréne Theorin (Isolde) and Stefan Vinke (Tristan)
© A. Bofill

Mapping technology and lighting (Franc Aleu and Urs Schönebaum respectively) create clear visual metaphors: waves swell behind the imperceptibly rotating deck in Act 1, reflecting in quickened pulses of Isolde’s vengeful anger as she retells the story of her slain husband at the hands of Tristan, the crumbling castle’s stonework upon King Marke’s discovery of the lovers in Act 2, a breaking of hearts now and to come, the matrix of veins in a womb-like projection as Tristan deliriously recalls his mother’s death whilst giving him birth in Act 3. It is an effective use of imagery, set and lights with a stage bathed in pastel greys and blues, evoking a nocturnal ambience and impending death much in line with the opera’s score.

<i>Tristan und Isolde</i> © A. Bofill
Tristan und Isolde
© A. Bofill
Josep Pons conducted the orchestra from chamberesque pianissimo to full symphonic grandeur, producing a rich sound faithful to Wagner’s singular composition. His control of orchestral volume, in particular, respected the singers’ task and bore in mind the peculiarities of the set that occasionally caused problems with singers’ projection. The orchestra painted the plethora of emotions well and with clarity – longing, desire, ecstasy, impatience and desperation. Strings and woodwind sections were outstanding and the complete ensemble provided a lush balanced harmonic base for the vocal performances.

Stefan Vinke is a well-known Heldentenor and sang this most demanding role with assurance. He does not have the most rounded of voices for this genre, but his outstanding depiction of the delirious, moribund Tristan in Act 3 was totally convincing, both vocally and dramatically. Iréne Theorin sang the role of Isolde and gave us a convincing portrayal of the character’s complex personality. Vocally she ranged from powerful projection in the first act to an almost whispered “pianissimo” in the lover’s duet in the second and whilst this lent authenticity to her dialogue with Tristan, the orchestra inevitably predominated, even when hushed by Pons. Without doubt, the much-anticipated highlight was her emotive Liebestod, sung with an expressive and (at times) whispered subtlety that moved the audience.

King Marke was sung marvellously by Albert Dohmen with a rich vocal tonality and a regal stage presence. His voice was solid in all registers from low to high and his sorrowful monologue on Tristan’s betrayal towards the end of Act 2 was another memorable moment in this production. Greer Grimsley’s Kurwenal was a noble companion to Vinke’s Tristan. Tragically convincing, he provided a robust yet emotional vocality throughout.

Iréne Theorin (Isolde) and Stefan Vinke (Tristan) © A. Bofill
Iréne Theorin (Isolde) and Stefan Vinke (Tristan)
© A. Bofill

Sarah Connolly sang Brangäne and gave us solid intonation and a fine vocal line, though her warnings to the doomed lovers in Act 2 were compromised by her more distant position on a high balcony near the top of the set which, coupled with the orchestra volume, made her hard to be heard. Though a minor role, Francisco Vas sang Melot well with a plausible portrayal of the distraught attendant to the king, rifle in hand. Jorge Rodríguez-Norton surprised the audience with his brief but rich vocal performance of the young sailor and the shepherd, who together with Germán Olvera provided excellent support matching the standard of this production.

The final notes and curtain, resolving the tension created at the outset with the famous “chord” raised an enormous ovation – worthy recompense for a generally excellent performance by orchestra and singers.