Those who complain about a lack of a ship in the first act Tristan und Isolde should be careful what they wish for. As the curtain opens (a drop curtain, in fact, whisked up at the climax of the prelude) on Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new production at the Staatsoper in Berlin, we are indeed on board a ship. But it’s something very different from what Wagner specifies: a modern superyacht.

Andreas Schager (Tristan) and Anja Kampe (Isolde) © Monika Rittershaus
Andreas Schager (Tristan) and Anja Kampe (Isolde)
© Monika Rittershaus

We see its swanky saloon, swirly wood panels and cream upholstery. A flat screen TV shows various views from around the vessel; Tristan and chums are sitting around chatting. Isolde and Brangäne come in later as flustered additional passengers.

It’s a familiar Tcherniakov idea: placing characters in a modern, drearily affluent setting. In this case it made for a first act that, for the most part, was difficult to care about, only becoming dramatically involving as the love potion kicked in. Any hope, however, that this would see our leading couple break out of this soul-sapping milieu, breaking free from its constraints, were dashed in Act 2. This opened with more casual chit chat, this time at drinks party in a smart wooded interior – doubly wooded, given the tree motifs inlaid in the curved panelling.

These guests head out merrily with rifles to leave our lovers alone to greet each other with lots of high-fiving and over-the-top gesticulating (think Children’s TV presenters); in the big duet, Tristan seems to be carrying out some sort of low-key exorcism. Rather than outsiders, they feel very much as though they are part of the smug, uningratiating milieu that Tcherniakov creates. I didn't have much idea what they’ve been discovered doing – nor apparently does King Marke who, surrounded by the party guests, remains impassive throughout the final stages of the act. Melot (a wily Stephan Rügamer) rushes in to strangle our hero rather than stab him. For the violent outbreak at the end of Act 3, meanwhile, we are simply plunged into complete darkness.

Anja Kampe (Isolde) and Andreas Schager (Tristan) © Monika Rittershaus
Anja Kampe (Isolde) and Andreas Schager (Tristan)
© Monika Rittershaus

For that act, Tristan is back in what we assume is the old family apartment: run down, dirty and with bad wallpaper. He lies on a sofa, his tragedy apparently as much one of loss of social standing and wealth as anything else. With Boaz Daniel’s focused, sturdily-sung Kurwenal fussing Annina-like around him, it was a scene that felt more Traviata than Tristan.

Tcherniakov tries to add depth with the addition of a couple of extras appearing in Tristan’s hallucinations as his parents, re-enacting a scene of simple, if distinctly old-fashioned, domesticity and appearing on the projections (by Tieni Burkhalter) that are a fleeting feature throughout the whole show, necessitating the constant presence of a gauze. The cor anglais solos are played from the stage, the Staatskapelle’s Florian Hanspach-Torkildsen dressed in mid-century costume and sitting in a sleeping niche off the main room.

Andreas Schager (Tristan), Ekaterina Gubanova (Brangäne) and Stephen Milling (Marke) © Monika Rittershaus
Andreas Schager (Tristan), Ekaterina Gubanova (Brangäne) and Stephen Milling (Marke)
© Monika Rittershaus

There was no quibbling with the skill of Tcherniakov’s smartly designed sets (lit with surgical precision by Gleb Filshtinsky), but it was a staging determinedly drained of all the mystery and magic – not to mention the rich colours and torrid atmosphere – that so permeate Wagner’s score. Most dispiritingly, it sucked the heart out of the drama, as well as the interest.

It had a neutralising effect on Daniel Barenboim’s conducting, or even underlined its extreme nature. The conductor started imperceptibly, underlining the music’s rhythmic openendedness with a pulse that was barely there. But he hovered constantly on the line between languorous and lugubrious; some of the players struggled to follow. The orchestral playing was outstanding, though, with the horns on particularly sweet form. Wagner’s score was allowed to fire up when necessary, too. But generally the conducting felt increasingly sluggish, and the orchestra was far too loud, with a tendency to drown Anja Kampe’s Isolde, in particular.

Andreas Schager (Tristan) and Anja Kampe (Isolde) © Monika Rittershaus
Andreas Schager (Tristan) and Anja Kampe (Isolde)
© Monika Rittershaus

Kampe sang with her customary fierce commitment but without the necessary authority; and she struggled, unsurprisingly, to sustain the line at Barenboim’s initial tempo in the Liebestod. Andreas Schager’s Tristan was in many ways astonishing: unsinkable, and with apparently endless reserves of ringing, heroic tone. The intimacy he and Barenboim created at the start of “O sink hernieder” was memorable. But his lack of refinement can be a drawback, as can acting whose boyish exuberance can verge on the comic. 

Stephen Milling sounded out of sorts as Marke in Act 2, and indeed an announcement was made before the start of the following act. Ekaterina Gubanova sang persuasively as Brangäne, but the character as a whole – dressed as little more than a frumpy sidekick – seemed to count for little. And, alas, Tcherniakov ultimately succeeded in making the whole opera count for little.

***11