Advice to young people: if you find yourself on stage in a Wagnerian opera and are offered a drink, just politely refuse. Tristan accepts one from Isolde (twice in this production) and suffers greatly, not from poison, but from love. It is a cerebral kind of love, steeped in Schopenhauer’s notion that our only escape from life’s misery is to deny the will to live. Wagner’s infatuation was not only with the philosopher but also with Mathilde Wesendonck, his muse at the time of Tristan und Isolde's conception. This remarkable production incorporates elements of both these emotional and intellectual roots of the work’s genesis.

Rachel Nicholls (Isolde) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Tristan)
© Marc Brenner

Thus in Act 2, we are not in a garden but in a comfortable Victorian drawing room, its elements rearranged from the state room of a warship of Act 1. There is no flowery bank for the love duet, but a sofa such as Wagner might have sat upon to talk philosophy with his friend Nietzsche, or poetry with Mathilde. The lovers discourse upon life as day and death as night, the realm where their identities will merge and love endure. In this production this central idea of the work is properly caught. The mood is intellectually questing, not erotic, Director and designer Charles Edwards directs his characters so they are at one with both text and music. Neither Tristan nor Isolde seem concerned that they have an opportunity for earthly amorous activity; sublimity subjugates the sublunary, Eros yields to Thanatos.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Tristan) and Rachel Nicholls (Isolde)
© Marc Brenner

Each act, even this one, ends with arrivals from the world of day and busily combative stage events. But each act also ends with an attempt by Tristan to die, first drinking a supposed death draft, second embracing Melot’s attempt on his life, third removing bandages from his deadly wound. These are altered somewhat – Melot has a rifle but his role is superfluous now as Tristan has already attempted to drink a death-draft for a second time, fulfilling Wagner’s dramaturgic symmetry.

David Stout (Kurwenal) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Tristan)
© Marc Brenner

There is the odd miscalculation, inevitable in a production with such ambitions. The unseen “Young Sailor” who opens Act 1 singing from the masthead, comes onstage and turns his imagined reference to Isolde into a real jibe at the “Irish maid” and appears to belong on the quarterdeck, as it seems many years since he was in the foretop. At the end, Tristan at last enters eternity by backing through some double doors, at least reducing Wagner’s messy body count onstage at the close. Isolde, now unable to “sink upon Tristan’s body”, is instead transfigured as the set parts in one corner so she can depart into a cloud of dry ice (so large it clouded the first curtain calls).

Rachel Nicholls (Isolde) and Christine Rice (Brangäne)
© Marc Brenner

The cast is strong. The Brangäne of Christine Rice rudely stole the vocal honours; as if it was not enough to be given the plumb number of her exquisite Act 2 warning, she sang with such tone, control and phrasing that one understood Tristan’s response in his following line, “Now let me die”.

Rachel Nicholls (Isolde)
© Marc Brenner

Her mistress, Rachel Nicholls' Isolde, was not so consistent in her more demanding role, which contains its early temperamental squalls; vocally too, there were some squalls in the highest reaches, and she was too loud. The pit here is mostly covered, the auditorium small and conductor Stephen Barlow considerate of his singers, so Wagner’s vocal demands can be met. Nicholls soon adjusted and in Act 2 was quite splendid, blending well with her tenor. Her Liebestod, which began after ten o’clock, ending a role she began just after four, was understandably rather unsteady, so we could not quite relish that sensational harmonic resolution, for which the audience had waited since the first bars of the work.

Matthew Rose (King Marke) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Tristan)
© Marc Brenner

Gwyn Hughes Jones' Tristan was very assured. His tone is not always the most generous, but his stage assurance is commanding, and his range of emotion from disdain to tenderness reflected in use of vocal colour. He rose superbly to the long monologues of Act 3, and was moving in his realisation of how his past has led him to such despair. David Stout was sturdy as his devoted servant Kurwenal, and on ringing form vocally. Matthew Rose, who has few peers among operatic basses, was simply magnificent as King Marke, noble and sorrowing in his Act 2 lament. Like Tristan we could only hang our heads at such a bewildered, wronged man.

Barlow’s conducting served the work well with steady tempi, well sustained over the work’s long lines, understanding that Wagner can be trusted to build his climaxes often across several pages of score. The Gascoigne Orchestra, not least the cor anglais launching Act 3, played with great skill, and the chorus of sailors, apparently singing from the foretop, was thrillingly present in this space.