On a stage within the stage, Brangäne lounges on a striped deck chair. Childish doodles of sea creatures float past a ship that seems better suited to Anything Goes than to Tristan und Isolde. A young man in a sailor uniform enters singing jauntily (with the clear, bright voice of Dean Power) and offers the ladies on deck mixed drinks. It’s all bizarre and disconcerting if you’re used to dark hues and ominous symbols. But why not? Surely doomed love is possible among time travelers on a cruise. A love potion is not even required.

Robert Dean Smith (Tristan) and Waltraud Meier (Isolde) © Wilfried Hösl
Robert Dean Smith (Tristan) and Waltraud Meier (Isolde)
© Wilfried Hösl

Time travelers they must be, because their piecemeal costumes contrast sharply with the ship’s cheery modernity. Tristan’s metal breastplate is positively medieval, but Isolde’s white button-up dress with slashed sleeves is straight from the catalogue of a 1980s bridal designer. When the chorus appears in Act II, their leafy hats and jackets conjure up a children’s story book with personified nature. The forest set for the act is similarly childish, with sketched trees stretching across the stage. In the heart-stopping moment of the lovers being discovered, the soldiers actually tear through the paper set and the house lights suddenly come up.

Act III involves another exciting entrance, when Brangäne smashes a window to reach Isolde. The playfulness is gone, though. The set consists of a stark, gray room with a single armchair and a slide projector. The raving Tristan’s gestures throw oversized shadows onto the wall behind him until Kurwenal, terrified, pulls the plug. Isolde and Tristan escape together by exiting the stage within the stage. The lovers’ friends continue to call for them, but the lovers gently close the curtains. Their matching black dresses fade into the black of the bare stage; they need no props but themselves. Only when they have joyously exited together does the small curtain re-open to reveal their coffins.

The standing ovation of the night was for Waltraud Meier, who is retiring the role of Isolde from her repertoire. And how can the opera world possibly replace her? With her powerful but steady voice, her dignified demeanor with sudden flashes of rage, and her thrilling moments of pure lyricism, she is Isolde. She had some initial trouble getting her voice flowing smoothly and making herself entirely audible on Wednesday, but she quickly overcame them. Her “Mild und leise…” had such tenderness to it that the opera’s tragic ending felt triumphant.

Waltraud Meier © Wilfried Hösl
Waltraud Meier
© Wilfried Hösl

Robert Dean Smith didn’t seem like a good match for Meier during the first two acts. His voice was smooth and warm when soft, but murky and wobbly when pushed. The lovers’ Act I duet sounded harsh, with their vibratos clashing terribly. Smith must have been saving his voice. When he opened his mouth in the third act, he seemed to be a different singer – one with a powerful sound and no trace of a wobble.

Big-voiced basses don’t get any better than René Pape. As King Marke, he sang with such accuracy, legato lines, full voice, and expressive emphases that it is hard to imagine a single changed note could have improved his performance. He held the audience spellbound from the moment he entered. Bass-baritone Alan Held also impressed as Kurwenal with his surprisingly large sound during his mocking first-act song. In the third act, he showed that he was capable of achingly sung quiet moments as well. His acting mostly involved banging his head into walls over Tristan’s blindness and stupidity... but that was perfectly appropriate.

Both of the title characters had tempestuous relationships with their servants. Tristan alternated between practically falling at Kurwenal’s feet and tossing him across the room in a fit of rage. Isolde also frequently resorted to violence in her dealings with Brangäne. Michelle Breedt gave the wise confidante an unflappable air and sprightly manner that served as a perfect foil for her mistress’ melodrama. She held her own vocally, too, with clear, strong singing throughout and a particularly lovely “Einsam wachend…”.

Alan Held (Kurwenal), Robert Dean Smith (Tristan), Ikuko Yamamoto and Dirk Kammerer (English horns) © Wilfried Hösl
Alan Held (Kurwenal), Robert Dean Smith (Tristan), Ikuko Yamamoto and Dirk Kammerer (English horns)
© Wilfried Hösl

Under Philippe Jordan’s baton, the Bayerische Staatsorchester played with wonderful feeling. The large string section produced a lush sound that filled the Nationaltheater. The orchestra struggled to find the appropriate volume balance with the singers initially, but they had it worked out perfectly by the second and third acts. Special mentions go to Ikuko Yamamoto and Dirk Kammerer, who played their third-act English horn solos smoothly and expressively while processing across the stage.

Peter Konwitschny’s production offers novelty, beauty, and coherence. Seeing an unexpected approach to an opera triumph so completely is delightful. Combine that with top-notch singing and musicianship, and the result is a Tristan und Isolde not to be missed.