Glyndebourne’s original plans for 2021 envisaged a fully staged summer revival of the late Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s distinguished production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Things have not worked out that way because of Covid, but the Tristans have gone ahead nevertheless, in semi-staged performances directed by Daniel Dooner, described as being based on Lehnhoff’s restrained and reflective account.
Semi-staged Wagner is familiar from the concert hall, and these performances are in that mould. The main stage is given over to the full-strength London Philharmonic Orchestra under Robin Ticciati, while the singers perform on an apron and the chorus is pre-recorded. From my distant recollection of the 2003 production, vanishingly little of Lehnhoff’s staging, and almost nothing of the sets and props, survive [see footnote].
What remains was an underwhelming piece of theatre, more semi than staged. To a degree, this may not matter for this work. Tristan und Isolde is intensely inwardly focused, so static stage treatments, in which the characters soliloquise rather than interact, can certainly work. Yet, when compared with the elaborate psychological probings of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s fully staged Tristan in Munich last month under Kirill Petrenko, sporting Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros in the name parts, the Glyndebourne performances feel short-changed.
That the evening does not feel like a disappointment at all is principally thanks to Ticciati’s fine conducting and to the LPO, who played superbly throughout. As Lehnhoff pointed out long ago, Glyndebourne is an ideal size for Tristan’s many chamber-like qualities, and Ticciati was always alive to this. The big, shocking moments in the score, where the external world bursts into the interior drama, as it does in the final pages of the first two acts, were powerfully unleashed, but it was in the score’s many quieter passages, beautifully rendered by the LPO, that Ticciati impressed most of all.
In the smaller roles, Stuart Jackson contributed an intelligently sung sailor and shepherd and John Relyea gave an eloquent account of King Marke’s dignified heartbreak. As Isolde’s companion Brangäne, Karen Cargill sang with full rich tone and psychologically credible urgency. The Chinese baritone Shenyang, a past winner of the BBC Cardiff competition, was a splendidly vivid Kurwenal.
As Tristan, Simon O’Neill was inexhaustible. His tone tends to be nasal but the vocal heft that makes him one of the go-to Wagner singers of the era is never in doubt. He rose unflinchingly to the wild challenges of Tristan’s third act ravings and even got the notes right. Miina-Liisa Värelä’s Isolde was a less consistent realisation. She commanded the big moments in the first act, which Isolde dominates so thrillingly. Thereafter the tone occasionally wavered and the closing Liebestod missed some of the authority that should make this the moment of radiant resolution for which the entire score – as Ticciati clearly understood – has been searching.
• This article was amended on 18 August 2021 to clarify that the comparison comment was based on the reviewer’s personal recollection of the 2003 Lehnhoff staging. On 20 August 2021 the director, Daniel Dooner, responded to this article in a letter.
• In rep at Glyndebourne opera house, Lewes, until 28 August, and at the BBC Proms on 31 August.