After its co-producers in Paris and Rome, it is Dutch National Opera’s turn to present director Pierre Audi’s shadow-clad Tristan und Isolde. In Amsterdam Audi’s lucid visuals complemented a strong, balanced cast. Conductor Marc Albrecht kept a lyrical Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra on a concentrated simmer for the full four hours. This was a Tristan und Isolde to treasure.

Stephen Gould (Tristan), Ricarda Merbeth (Isolde) © DNO 2018
Stephen Gould (Tristan), Ricarda Merbeth (Isolde)
© DNO 2018

It would be worth catching a performance just for tenor Stephen Gould’s tireless performance. A Tristan that is as juicy of voice at the end of the opera as at the start is remarkable enough, but Gould brings so much more: a glossy smoothness, a poetic mezza voce in quiet moments and, of course, those sure-fire top notes. Gould’s vast experience with the knight who falls in love with his king’s bride translates into a wealth of interpretative variety: the naïve sincerity with which Tristan asks Isolde to follow him after their adultery is discovered, the drugged tenderness of the love duet and, most spectacularly, the deep melancholy and fevered confusion in the third act.

Stephen Gould (Tristan), Ian Paterson (Kurwenal) © DNO 2018
Stephen Gould (Tristan), Ian Paterson (Kurwenal)
© DNO 2018

Bass-baritone Iain Paterson was Tristan’s loyal servant Kurwenal. Cocky and insolent at first, then purposeful and caring, Paterson sang convincingly throughout, in stentorian and hushed tones. His fantastic performance deserved more applause than it got. In fact, all the men, including the house chorus as the off-stage ship’s crew, gave very capable performances. Martin Piskorski sang a wistful sailor’s song and Andrew Rees was a fierce Melot, here crippled and bent from fighting injuries. Making yet another Wagnerian role debut in Amsterdam, bass Günther Groissböck bared King Marke’s wounded psyche with dynamic mastery and ravishing timbre.

Ricarda Merbeth (Isolde), Michelle Breedt (Brangäne) © DNO 2018
Ricarda Merbeth (Isolde), Michelle Breedt (Brangäne)
© DNO 2018

With her light-coloured mezzo-soprano and sprightly temperament, Michelle Breedt was a youthful Brangäne, with pointed pronunciation and impassioned acting. Her delicately floated warning to the lovers was the cherry on top of a gratifying performance. She and Ricarda Merbeth’s Isolde were more like sisters than maid and mistress. Merbeth’s soprano is also lightish and slender, a similarity that underlined their being coevals. Merbeth also threw herself at the text, her consonants crackling and sizzling. The metallic edge in her voice took some getting used to, and at times her vibrato tended to loosen and get in the way of legato singing, especially at the register breaks. Despite these quibbles, Merbeth had much to offer as Isolde. There was warmth in her middle range, her top Bs were confident, and she also scored the required top Cs. She is a persuasive actress and, when she had her voice in hand, as in the Act 1 narration and curse, delivered powerful moments. And she capped the evening with an assured and hypnotic  “Mild und leise wie er lächelt”. In the pit Albrecht immediately declared his intentions in a smouldering, deliberate opening prelude. He let the music meander, pause and sigh unhurriedly. The orchestra responded with contained rhapsodic playing. Albrecht pulled off the balancing act of letting the music breathe while sustaining tension, although the first act could have used more expressive nuance when underscoring the singers. Maybe it was first-night nerves, because the details were there in the Act 2. The third act was magnificent, with a prelude like a melancholy caress, an aching cor anglais solo and a suspenseful account of Tristan’s agony.

Stephen Gould (Tristan), Ricarda Merbeth (Isolde), Günther Groissböck (König Marke) © DNO 2018
Stephen Gould (Tristan), Ricarda Merbeth (Isolde), Günther Groissböck (König Marke)
© DNO 2018

Onstage Audi creates a crepuscular world dominated by death, the endless night for which the lovers long. The characters move in front of a cyclorama hemmed with a fringe of black water while lighting designer Jean Kalman wraps them in shadows. A huge black square, representing death, keeps reappearing in various guises. It’s there from the beginning, before making way for the gliding iron constructions that form Tristan's ship. The lovers’ tryst takes place inside a whale skeleton, recalling Jonah, and, again, death. At the end everyone dies, not just the victims in the libretto, maybe suggesting that life without existential fulfillment is without value. Christof Hetzer’s costumes evoke a mythical Bronze Age and a post-apocalyptic future, and all singers heed soprano Birgit Nilsson’s advice and wear comfortable shoes. For the most part, the only dabs of colour on the bone-and-slate stage are Isolde and Brangäne’s hair, respectively red and blonde, yet the interplay of light and shade has fascinating depths. Audi cannily illuminates the supporting characters – Melot as an externalization of Marke’s baser nature is particularly chilling. His treatment of the lovers is more cerebral. He adds another symbolic layer to the love and death potions by replacing them with stones, one silver, one black. Tristan and Isolde hardly touch each other, which is logical, since their complete union is impossible in life. But when Isolde realises that Tristan is no longer breathing from metres away it undermines the scene dramatically. Overall, however, this perspicuous staging has a lingering, austere beauty.