Among the inevitable casualties of distancing measures in orchestras have been works that require substantial instrumental forces. Among symphony orchestras, the likes of Mahler and Bruckner have been put aside in favour of Haydn and Mozart, whose scores demand far fewer players, enabling the requisite distance between seats. Glyndebourne Festival Opera faced a similar predicament with their planned production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: does one drastically reduce the number of players and so interfere with Wagner’s score, or is it better simply to abandon the opera? The Festival, sensibly, opted for a third way: a semi-staging, based on Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2003 staging. The orchestra is removed from the pit and allowed to spread out comfortably on the stage; the singers, in costume rather than concert dress, are placed in a reduced space at the front.

Simon O’Neill (Tristan) and Miina-Liisa Värelä (Isolde)
© Bill Cooper

The compromise will not have pleased everyone, but there’s much to be said for concert performances and semi-stagings that allow audiences to hear works that might otherwise never be put on (one thinks of Chelsea Opera Group) and be performed at a cheaper cost. The other benefit of the semi-staged opera is that while there is ample room for high quality acting and theatricality from the performers, the risk of dangerous directorial conceits is significantly minimised. This is particularly appreciated in Wagner, a source of endless fascination to directors. Glyndebourne’s semi-staging under director Daniel Dooner, who assisted in the premiere of the 2003 production, can be traced through Lehnhoff back to the great spartan designs of Wieland Wagner at post-war Bayreuth. Most appreciable is the lighting work. which is beautifully sympathetic to both score and libretto, giving as much weight here as a fuller staging. Dooner strikes an admirable balance between a style of movement that is almost ritualistic at times and some very keen Personenregie – most notably between the two principal characters and their respective attendants. 

This production was a first for a number of the performers. Heldentenor Simon O’Neill is known for his Wagner and this was a successful role debut as Tristan. O’Neill has a distinct voice with a particular tonal colour and an obvious energy behind it. One felt that he was being somewhat overcautious in the first two acts, husbanding his strength, perhaps, for a sensational performance in Act 3, which he sang with relentless force and acted compelling. His chemistry with Isolde was not wholly convincing, however, and a little mellowing to the voice in Act 2 would have added to his characterization. Miina-Liisa Värelä was dramatically convincing in her first Isolde and one felt that attention was paid to the text. Yet despite some clean top notes, she seemed underprojected in the middle register and struggled to cut across the orchestra.

Karen Cargill (Brangäne) and Miina-Liisa Värelä (Isolde)
© Bill Cooper

We had a splendid selection of singers in the secondary roles. Particularly striking was John Relyea as King Marke, displaying a bass voice of varnished ebony. Relyea’s singing was pure luxury with impeccable diction and imbued with both restrained nobility and heaving emotion. Shenyang did not make a significant impression as Kurwenal in Act 1, but he delivered a seething, muscular performance in Act 3, reacting extremely well to O’Neill’s energy. Karen Cargill very nearly stole the first act with a forceful yet elegant assumption of Brangäne, pearly at the top of the voice and rich in the lower register. Neal Cooper was an appropriately odious Melot, making the most of a limited role.

John Relyea (King Marke)
© Bill Cooper

Robin Ticciati made his Wagner debut with enormous élan, drawing impeccable playing and an intense, nuanced reading of the score from the London Philharmonic. Of particular note was the fresh and airy woodwind performance, wafting, as Isolde might have put it, into the auditorium. This is not a production without flaws, but it is nonetheless compelling.