As part of my summer of Wagner, I recently saw Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne with the London Philharmonic conducted by Jiri Behlolavek. Nina Stemme was Isolde, Robert Gambill was Tristan and Rena Pape King Mark. The production was designed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff.

There are plenty of glowing reviews of this production (for instance here and here), which, although I don’t do reviews, I’m happy to second.

Stage direction and production design in Wagner is always controversial (there are some interesting posts over at Sounds and Fury ). Should we treat Wagner’s stage directions with the same reverence we treat the music? Should the visual world of modern productions be the same as productions from over 100 years ago? What is the boundary between a valid updating and a silly departure?

I’ve certainly seen more than a few silly departures recently, and, easy as it is to laugh at a stuffed frog in a major production of the Ring, it’s no laughing matter when one thinks of the real hard work and big money it takes to produce the cycle.

On the other hand, I’ve often found some of the more conservative and naturalistic productions I’ve seen quite dull, and the dragon in the Met’s production of Siegfried is as silly as Wotan in a pink boa, if not sillier.

The Glyndebourne Tristan was mercifully free of annoying conceits, instantly dating costumes and so on. There was one set for the three acts, a simply, abstract space, and most of the costumes were unobjectionable (except, strangely, for Tristan’s outfits in the first two acts).

At the end of the day, there were some beautiful lighting touches, the blocking found a nice balance between centered, fluid and static and the stage space did become quite alive in its simplicity.

How do they do it? Well for all the debates about narturalism, symbolism, Regietheater and so on, I’d suggest that you can ruin an opera with any type of staging. I tell my conducting students that, like good doctors, their first aim is to do no harm. You have the talents of many at your disposal as a conductor and the best music ever written to work with- if you do nothing to screw things up, people will at least have a good night out. Yes take chances, go for things, push the envelope, but don’t go so far that you take away from the music or make it impossible for people to do their jobs.

The beauty of the Glyndebourne Tristan is that it does no harm- the staging allows room for the music. When you don’t try to turn a stage into a carnival of symbols and pop-culture references, the audience can focus on the music, which is by far the most important thing, and the singing actors, which is the next most important.

When that happens, Wagner’s music can work on you, and Tristan is probably his most intoxicating work- the music gets under your skin and in your guts. Fantastic. I’m still haunted. And no stuffed frogs, either.

And I know I say I don’t do reviews here, but Nina Stemme as Isolde- wow, wow, wow.

You can hear some short excerpts of me conducting Waldweben from Siegfried here.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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