What a treat it is to have the mighty Berliner Philharmoniker in the pit of the Festival House of Baden-Baden for the new production of Tristan und Isolde by the Polish director Mariusz Treliński. Enhanced by the excellent acoustics of the house, with the orchestra deep in the lowered pit, it was as though the sound was coming from nowhere and everywhere. Under Sir Simon Rattle’s meticulous, expansive and unhurried direction, the strings played waves of lush melodies with every note clearly articulated. The exhilarating horn calls in the beginning of Act II, and the plaintive, haunting woodwinds at the climaxes of Acts II and III, were all somehow tempered so as not to disrupt the continuous music of unresolved longing that changed the course of Western music and art from the opera’s 1865 première. Sir Simon took time to build the momentum of the prelude, with prolonged pauses starting with an almost tentative opening of the famous Tristan chord. And yet the hours just flew by and the final note by an oboe to resolve the chord seemed to arrive too soon to wake us from a journey through the dream world of Tristan. It was not a surprise that after the singers took their bows, it was the conductor and his orchestra that received the most tumultuous ovation at the end of the evening.

The production is indeed conceived as the journey of Tristan, a commander of a battleship bringing a captive Isolde back to his uncle. Nautical images predominated; each act began with a video image of a large circle which became the compass of a ship, perhaps of a life, an endless cycle of wandering. During the prelude, following an image of a large ship and waves, a house in the forest appeared with a young boy. Act I set was a cross section of a claustrophobic ship, with a deck on top, Isolde’s cabin at the second level, and Tristan’s larger quarters at the bottom. Act II had Isolde and Brangane on the ship's deck, although the rest of the act took place in what appeared to be a living room. In Tristan’s hospital room in Act III, the images of the video in the prelude returned as a house appeared on stage with a child as part of Tristan’s delirium.

As if to emphasize that perhaps the whole drama was in Tristan's imagination, preferring darkness and death to daylight and life, the stage was kept dark most of the time, with occasional and effective lighting such as the northern light as the lovers met in Act II on the ship's deck. The notion of love/death was on the mind of both Tristan and Isolde even during their love duet, sung with the lovers not in an embrace but standing separately. In departure from the plot, both lovers committed suicide, with Tristan stabbing himself at the end of Act II and Isolde slitting her wrists as she prepared to sing the “Liebestod”. And yet the lovers were finally united in death, sitting on a bench, their bodies touching. The final image was again that of the waves as the ocean journey of life was completed. 

Stuart Skelton was an accomplished Tristan equipped with both vocal and physical stamina.  His lyrical voice had baritone-like heft coupled with hints of sweetness. He effectively conveyed the sense of Tristan’s inner conflict in the crucial Act II ending. Eva-Maria Westbroek was an excellent Isolde, with her warm, ringing middle register making her a glamorous and desirable woman. Sir Simon’s orchestra never overpowered her as she excelled in Isolde’s curse; her farewell to the world began like a whisper before reaching a powerful climax. With two strong principals, the Act II love duet was a real pleasure as their voices intertwined and rose thrillingly to their heights.

Sarah Connolly brought her diverse singing experience to the role of Isolde’s confidante Brangane. She sang clearly and cleanly, and her Act II warnings to the lovers, especially the second time when the video showed the lovers’ world expanding from the forest, to the earth, to the stars and universe, rode beautifully above the orchestra. It was a pleasure to hear Tristan’s aide and friend Kurwenal sung by such a strong baritone as Michael Nagy, who combined his attractive and penetrating voice with good acting skills to create a sympathetic character; his farewell to Tristan was heartbreaking. Stephen Milling was a stern, but ultimately mournful, King Marke with a deep, sonorous bass. Smaller roles were well cast, and contributed to this deeply rewarding experience.