You’d forgive a small state-based opera company with no government funding for shying away from Wagner, given his towering reputation and the overwhelming demands his work makes on a company’s talent, resources and commitment. Melbourne Opera are staging their third Wagner, after Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, and rather than quaver under this artist’s presence, they are tackling one of his most fiendish challenges, the monumental Tristan and Isolde. It’s the kind of ambition that would look like folly if not for the results, which in this case are often breathtaking.
The opera hasn’t been seen in Melbourne for 17 years, which is curious given that it contains some of the most sublime music ever written; it’s true that the narrative is so pared back it registers as little more than a conceit, and it so lacks dramatic action that it often seems in danger of freezing into tableaux. But there is something so profoundly grasping and aspirational in its conception, so otherworldly in its musical structure, that the effect is uncanny, almost transcendental. Melbourne Opera don’t nail every nuance in this production, but the scale and sheer confidence in their approach marks a true coming of age for this company.
Suzanne Chaundy directs again, after helming the company’s previous Wagner productions and Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy. She’s a director who is almost pathologically uncomfortable with movement, which is problematic in scenes that require it – a sword fight late in the piece is painfully stilted and unconvincing – but almost an asset for the majority of this opera, one of the most famously static ever written. For long stretches, the two leads stand apart and opine, and the simplicity of the staging coupled with the intensity of the singing means the audience is left enrapt. When they come together for some sexy time, it’s wincingly awkward, but given Wagner was channelling his own unrequited passion for a married friend when he conceived the parts, these moments are thankfully rare.
The production is sensibly pared back and symbolist. Lucy Wilkins’ costumes are elegant and contemporary in ways that emphasise timelessness, colour and mood. Greg Carroll’s two-tiered set is simple and flexible, suggesting a ship, a cave and an outcrop without slavish adherence to time or place. Yandell Walton’s video design, seen before for this company in Lohengrin, is only intermittently successful; it works well when it’s completely abstract, as in Act I’s oceanic effects or Act III’s pale, liminal sky. It’s less effective in Act II, when the crystallised rock formations and tumbling waterfalls distract from and flatten the action.
Of course, in Wagner the audience comes for the music. Acclaimed English conductor Anthony Negus steers the swirling, endlessly echoing score with consummate grace and suppleness, lifting the Melbourne Opera Orchestra to previously unforeseen heights; it’s proof positive of the vital importance of the conductor’s art. Lee Abrahmsen, whose illness caused the postponement of opening night, is stunning as Isolde, impervious and steadfast, capable of suggesting the esoteric nature of her powers while remaining firmly ensconced in the real world. Neal Cooper does wonders with his piercing high tenor, rendering the deep longing of the character as something concrete and palpable. It doesn’t matter so much that the two leads have little erotic chemistry, because Wagner’s idea of love is wholly intellectual anyway. This is a meeting that takes place in an exalted sphere, where bodies are thankfully left behind.
Wagner’s extraordinary teasing out of the symbols of day and night, of light and darkness – where the sun is the enemy of love and the dawn a replacement for death – are perhaps not as perfectly realised in this production as they might have been, but the emotional power and aesthetic glory of the music are beautifully apparent. With some decent funding, and a long-term commitment to its development, this is an opera company capable of muscling out its far more endowed competition. Given that it’s a story of the triumph of love over the state, Tristan and Isolde could stand as a metaphor for the outfit itself.