Passion approaching perfection

Tristan and Isolde

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


IF anyone was qualified to make the ultimate operatic statement on the darker side of love, then it is Richard Wagner.

His personal and professional life reads like the twisted plot of a lifetime's worth of soap operas as he was no stranger to emotional controversy both publically and privately.

His great work, Tristan and Isolde, has been recognised for so many musical innovations, even as the root of modern music which has been judged as emanating from his decisions to explore a new form of tonality.

What is clearly evident is the rare skill of a composer that can so accurately support his own libretto with a unique punctuality and landscape that elevates and shapes his deeper philosophical ideas.

So effective are his dramatic motifs and themes that over time they have been imitated widely and at times you feel you could be listening to a Hitchcock soundtrack or similar melodrama of the 1950s, rather than a work dating back to 1859.

Modern playwrights would also do well to study his text as his libretto unfolds in such a natural and effective way. The combination of all of these elements creates a powerful piece of theatre.

We begin aboard a ship bound for Cornwall as Tristan is taking the Irish Princess Isolde back to be married to his uncle King Marke. The Director and designer Yannis Kokkos uses simple sweeping curves and cut outs to suggest either the sails of a sea bound vessel or a pathway cut through the woodland.

Fated Lovers: Ben Heppner as Tristan and Ann Petersen, as Isolde. Pictures: David Massey

In front of that is a large framework and gauze that locks the performers into the scene with muted back- lit silhouettes and misty shapes of the crew. Only as the first act comes to a close and we reach land is the screen removed and we are given the full clarity of the stage.

The German text is translated with surtitles which appear high above the stage and are a welcome feature. The fact Tristan and Isolde ponder on so many aspects of their love in relation to everyday life that to not have a full understanding is to be removed from the subtleties that this opera contains.

Tristan and Isolde have travelled to this place together and yet in the past she has nursed him to health after he had killed her betrothed, sparing him after looking into his eyes. Symbolically they are at one journey's end whilst about to begin another. However as Isolde plots to conclude both of their lives by poison the potion is switched to another and they fall openly in love.

Ann Peterson as Isolde cut a stunning figure against the sculptured scenery with her flowing red locks and dark cape. Unfortunately we were warned that she might have some vocal issues from the start but managed the first two acts before being replaced by Austrian, Anna – Katharina Behnke.

Whilst some sounded disappointed it was a ` two for the price of one' moment for opera lovers and a unique opportunity to see two very different singers in the role.


Petersons Isolde was a more mature statement with her raw power and vibrato appearing very much as someone who had lived, loved and lost. Behnkes Isolde, although in truth only seen in the final moments, was a slender more pure innocent delivery and her delicate physical nature seemed a more natural choice for a young woman in love.

For me the performance of Susan Bickley left the deepest impression as the companion Brangäne. There is one magical moment when the lovers sleep silently in the darkness of the forest while Brangäne keeps watch. She sings out for them to beware and, even though not on stage, her angelic disembodied song filled the space like some distant siren. There is rounded warmth to her voice and I couldn't wait for her to come back each time she left the scene.

Ben Heppner as Tristan was controlled and rich in his delivery but similar to the other male players missed some of the dramatic detail that the women seemed able to muster. Much of the third act was sung by him lying down and not once did he lose any accuracy or power in his delivery. The only issue I had was that at that point the staging had introduced a long sloping platform that finished only a foot or so from the edge of the stage. It was curious addition, which, while dynamic, seemed very difficult to walk upon and you could sense the performer's care when negotiating it, which at times intruded slightly into their performance.

Lothar Koenigs conducted and was masterful at judging the very complex pace. Act Two is a real test with the love scene building to a crescendo over a considerable period of time. It is also where Wagner has Tristan and Isolde hypothesise on love, light and death and the lyric needs subtle support and space to allow them to be heard. Koenigs negotiated these with real sensitivity.   

Tristan and Isolde is a real commitment in time and concentration for both the audience and performers, spanning around 5 hours with intervals. It is though a worthy investment when produced and delivered perfectly as it is here in the hands of the Welsh National Opera.

The time seems to pass quickly as this tragic story unfolds but at the end you feel like you have gained considerable interest on the money in your emotional bank.   

Jeff Grant 

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