In contrast to the message of the recent chart-topping song, the Zurich production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was all about that soprano. Nina Stemme, this generation’s successor to Flagstad and Nilsson, delivered a towering performance, as impressive for its dramatic intensity as for her outstanding voice. One could not hope ever to hear a better Act I performance from an Isolde than this: she raged like a primeval Celtic priestess when calling down destruction on the ship, and her narrative of how she couldn’t kill the wounded Tristan was deeply moving. While the power of her golden top register was thrilling, she did not rely on volume alone, but cut through the orchestral textures just as well at lower dynamic levels. Indeed, the flexibility and warmth of her tone was arguably even more winning than her sheer vocal heft. Naturally, Stemme’s Act III finale, the so-called “Liebestod”, was glorious: starting in a supine position did not compromise her sound in the slightest, and it mounted to a world-encompassing climax.

Nina Stemme (Isolde) © Suzanne Schwiertz
Nina Stemme (Isolde)
© Suzanne Schwiertz

While the rest of the cast was mostly excellent, it was a case of the greater glory dimming the less. Stephen Gould was an untiring Tristan, although as an actor he left something to be desired. The chemistry between the protagonists was meagre, which made the Act II duet feel less compelling than it ought. Only when capturing the despair and feverishness of the dying hero in Act III did Gould (paradoxically) come alive. Legendary bass Matti Salminen may not have the stentorian voice of old, but he sang honestly and was a dignified, moving Marke. Both Michelle Breedt as Brangäne and John Lundgren as Kurwenal were in fine form, although the latter was given some rather odd gestures in his first mocking song. The smaller parts were all well performed, with the pick perhaps being the Mauro Peter’s easy delivery of the off-stage sailor’s song.

John Fiore led the very fine Philharmonia Zurich sensitively: he wasn’t afraid of expansive tempi in parts, which may explain why it ran nearly 20 minutes longer than the estimated time, but only very rarely was there less than perfect coordination with the stage. The balance between orchestra and singers was skilfully negotiated: even though the pit was less covered than in some other opera houses, the singers were scarcely ever swamped. Only the second part of Brangäne’s off-stage watch song was difficult to make out.

Claus Guth’s production has been running since 2008, with some of the current cast veterans from its first outing. He situated the story in what seemed to be a late 19th/early 20th century upper-class milieu, complete with long dresses, dinner jackets and top hats. Gone was any suggestion of the ship in Act I: the curtain rose on Christian Schmidt’s set of an elegant but definitely land-based bedroom. This rotated one-way to show a bare antechamber, and the other to reveal a plant-filled conservatory.

Nina Stemme (Isolde) and Michelle Breedt (Brangäne) © Suzanne Schwiertz
Nina Stemme (Isolde) and Michelle Breedt (Brangäne)
© Suzanne Schwiertz

There was some suggestive if ultimately mysterious ‘doubling’ going on: for instance, much of the pre-potion-drinking dialogue between Tristan and Isolde took place in a mirror-image of the first bedroom. More tellingly, Brangäne was identical to her mistress in garments and hair-style, and shadowed her gestures when Isolde told of dropping the sword. At the beginning of Act II, Isolde was in white while Brangäne wore the identical costume in black, possibly indicative of some psychic split in a single-character. This idea that they might be one was reinforced in the first part of Brangäne’s watch-song, when Isolde lip-synched along. The final curtain at the very end of the opera fell as King Marke stretched out his hand to Brangäne, confirming her role as an Isolde-substitute.

The Act II love duet was imaginatively reworked as a series of flashbacks to what must have happened between the first and second acts. This backstory was conveyed in a series of tableaux, with the singers moving freely among the court functionaries, who were mostly frozen in attitudes of drinking, socialising, and at one point, gossiping about the affair. Rather less convincing was the choreography of the final section of the duet (“wie es fassen”), where the two lovers swept the utensils off a long dining table, and clambered on to it for a spot of canoodling. Marke’s monologue took place in a drawing room where he was having a post-prandial brandy with friends, giving it the feeling of a tribunal.

Act III again made much (excessive?) use of the rotating stage, with Tristan returning to the dining room during his hallucinatory monologue. Isolde’s entrance into this room was literally backwards: a slow-motion, backwards gyration. Later reflection convinced me that time was being rewound back to the end of Act II. The opera finished in this alternative time-line, with the lovers dying on the table where they had consummated their affair.