For directors, singers and audiences alike, Tristan und Isolde is an impossible work. Directors face the challenge of how to stage successfully a plot much more concerned with inner psychological developments and abstruse metaphysics than with action-based drama. The two protagonists are required to sing at inhuman volumes and pitch levels over the five-hour run-time. The listener is confronted with a work whose rich innovations cannot possibly be grasped in any single hearing – indeed, a lifetime’s study is not enough. And yet, Saturday’s performance at the Berlin Staatsoper came close to making the impossible ideal a workable reality. The combination of Harry Kupfer’s brilliant staging, the acting and singing of noted Wagnerians Waltraud Meier and Peter Seiffert supported by a flawless cast, with Daniel Barenboim’s flexible and emotionally persuasive direction, made for an emotionally shattering experience. It vividly called to mind Wagner’s remark during the composition stage, that “good performances will drive people mad”. I have never experienced anything of comparable intensity in the theatre.

Waltraud Meier (Isolde, 2000) © Monika Ritterhaus
Waltraud Meier (Isolde, 2000)
© Monika Ritterhaus

This production, Kupfer’s third take on the opera, was brilliant in its simplicity. The stage was dominated by an enormous statue of a fallen angel lying prostrate, wings unfurled and head buried in its hands (this dates from 2000, long before Doctor Who made this image terrifying). Set on a revolve, at different angles it doubled as ship, lovers’ bower, and craggy Kareol. During Brangäne’s expansive watch-song, it was rotated infinitely slowly, as though we were watching the slow spinning of the earth. Clever use was made of lighting: Tristan’s delirious fantasy before Isolde’s arrival in Act III was lit colourfully, for example, before fading to monochrome after his death. The back-wall switched between black and white according to dramatic needs.

Meier’s voice is not the glorious instrument it once was: she didn’t even try for the high Cs in Act II and, when singing softly, her lower register isn’t timbrally homogenous (manipulations of some sounds made certain notes stick out oddly at “Mir erkoren” in Act I and the beginning of the Liebestod). But in spite of this, there was a grandeur to her portrayal of Isolde which was utterly convincing. In the final scene of Act I she was mesmerising, spitting out the word “Knecht” (slave), and yet the transition from vengeful figure to lover was brilliantly accomplished. The credit here belongs not only to the singers but to the stage direction. Where Wagner choreographed an elaborate pantomime of gestures for two-and-a-half minutes of orchestral music during which the characters realise they haven’t swallowed poison, here Meier and Seiffert simply sat beside each other, allowing the music to chart their emotional journey. Just before their hesitant re-entry with “Tristan!” “Isolde!” the backs of their hands touched and their fingers entwined: a gesture perfect in its intimacy and understatement. Even the frantic cavorting of the two near 60-year-olds which followed shortly afterwards didn’t break the spell.

Seiffert was vocally outstanding in Act I, but by the latter stages of the duet he had tired considerably, which led to some pitch issues. Act III saw him back on form, with those moments of quite understandable strain now seeming apposite to the wounded, hallucinating Tristan. Physically strongly reminiscent of Philip Seymour Hoffman, he had something of the latter’s ability to shape a character through minimal movement.

Each of the other characters brought something special to their role. Ekaterina Gubanova was a gorgeous-voiced Brangäne, and Roman Trekel a strong Kurwenal. The jewel in this cast was Stephen Milling, whose rendition of Marke’s monologue was simply spell-binding. In fact, he was so good that his brief appearance at the end of Act III almost unbalanced the focus on the lovers, especially as the production strongly brought out a homosexual subtext in Marke’s relationship to his nephew (ditto the Kurwenal-Tristan pairing). The opera in fact ended with the King lying next to the dead Tristan as Isolde addressed her Liebestod to the footlights.

My high expectations of the Staatskapelle Orchestra were more than met on the night: the dynamic gradations in the Act III Prelude were worth the entry price alone. Barenboim was sensitive to the singers’ needs, so that only very occasionally did the full instrumental thunder render the voices less than perfectly audible. Under his direction, the passage in the love-duet preceding “Lausch, Geliebter” was an intimate secret, almost too precious for this world. At the other end of the spectrum, there was a profound weightiness to the introduction to the final scene of Act I. This scene, for me, was the undoubted high-point of the evening, where everything worked together to create a rare moment of transcendent beauty. I wept, and I will never forget it.