Think of all the adjectives typically used to report on the best of female Wagner singing; add lyrical phrasing and imagine the absence of any shrillness, and you have come as close as possible to a description of the perfection that Nina Stemme achieved in her first Isolde for the Wiener Staatsoper. Her partner for the night was Peter Seiffert, who is at an age where one might typically expect vocal weaknesses, though judging from this performance Isolde not only had balms and a love potion for Tristan but a voice-rejuvenating elixir as well. There may have been wide vibrato on a couple of occasions, but what does that matter in a performance where you hear stupendous crescendos coming forth from long sustained mezzo-forte notes, Lieder-like tenderness in Act II, and vocal power soaring above a pit which held nothing back? We cannot know whether Seiffert gave 200% because he needn’t save his instrument for another 20 years on stage, but one was grateful for the rare experience of hearing a Tristan in full bloom and blast, whatever the reason for his no-holds-barred performance may have been.

Peter Seiffert and Nina Stemme in Tristan und Isolde © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Peter Seiffert and Nina Stemme in Tristan und Isolde
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

The bad news is that without such strong lead casts, Sir David McVicar’s debut production for the Staatsoper isn’t one that will help opera newcomers see past the platitudes of Wagner’s proverbial wonderful moments and stultifying quarters of hours. Admittedly, this staging is neither ugly nor disrespectful to the text, but the black and blue set (Robert Jones), with its colour-changing moon, a shipwreck and a ruin, looks like a leftover from some obsolete and in no small part purely imagined era of opera staging. In terms of mise-en-scène, it is an unqualified disappointment. The notable absence of an interview with the director in the evening’s programme suggests that he hasn’t much to say about the work; or at least nothing that translated visually. At any rate McVicar seems to be more comfortable with operas that provide more action, as the Viennese could see in the Met’s broadcast of his brilliant Giulio Cesare. The minimum that can be expected from this director was however fulfilled in this Tristan: the sexual subtext materialized in what can count as a phallic symbol in Act II, a slender stone pillar centred in a big round wiry object in the air that could pass for an abstract maypole with an oversized wreath.

The other signature feature in McVicar productions is Andrew George’s choreography, and this one was no exception. A choreographic approach to opera can work very well, and I can indeed imagine it for Tristan, but you have to be committed to the idea and come up with a clear concept, instead of just occasional gymnastics – having sailors dance a bit around the ship that brings Isolde to Cornwall will almost inevitably make things look more Broadway than Wagner. Plaudits are in order, however, for the direction of the singers; it helps that there is good stage chemistry between Seiffert and Stemme, who aren’t newcomer to their roles, but the impeccable timing of action (as was particularly noticeable in the potion scene) is worth mentioning. Also, with the two leads singing meticulously attuned duets that speak for themselves, letting them sometimes just stand and perform a grey version of Gustav Klimt’s Kiss is not a bad idea, though it has to be said that more colours than fifteen shades of grey in kaftan-style costumes and armours would have been welcome. Had there not been Stemme’s blood-red velvet gown with a train for the finale, the award for the most spectacular sight of the night would have gone to the orchestra, playing without jackets and ties as a concession to the current oven-like temperatures in Austria.

Franz Welser-Möst, with his unspectacular, even economic style in conducting, as well as a fittingly detached countenance, elicited passionate and vibrant sound and only very occasionally too much volume from the orchestra. Tristan’s wavy motif was wonderfully gushing and sparkling, but ebullient playing was not so welcome where Wagner’s ideas of overcoming polarities climax and love and death merge into “Liebestod”. For this, the transfiguration of Isolde, I prefer the idea of an ecstatic but slow fading, whereas Welser-Möst read the score as Isolde drowning in a maelstrom, albeit impressively so. Another musical qualification has to be made about Act II: the love duet between the supernatural beings that are Tristan and Isolde was sublime, save for Janina Baechle’s contribution of earthy tone, where the warning song of other Brangänes can sound angelic. The rest of the cast gave fine performances, with Stephen Milling’s Marke standing out and Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Kurwenal making an impression in Act III.