Does this look familiar (hat tip Opera News)? This is a scene from Christof Loy's Lulu for the Royal Opera from earlier this year played out in a minimal staging - next to no furniture and monochrome, contemporary vernacular costume.
To others (who, as I did, attended the public dress rehearsal) this will look very similar to the Royal Opera's production of Tristan und Isolde, also directed by Loy, which opens on Tuesday. I left rather more confounded than I had been by Lulu.
Where Lulu was set in a number of urban spaces, for which an undressed stage is as good a proxy as any, Tristan und Isolde is set on the sea (Act 1) and overlooking the sea (Act 3). "How black the sea is!" remarks the shepherd in Act 3 making explicit the connection between the noumenal night that has been referred to throughout the previous act - "immeasurable, unorganised, void" as Aschenbach has it in Death in Venice, Britten's Wagnerian love-and-the-sea opera.
Needless to say then that there is no sea/boat/sails etc. in Loy's production. This is fair enough in his aesthetic - there is no action in the water, which stands as a metaphor in the dialogue. The reason it becomes an issue though is that Loy does show a fair bit of corollary action further upstage in a 19th century-a-like ballroom behind the rake. This involves a men-only formal dinner, the close-parallel universe in which King Marke's court and its trappings are the moral and social rubric.
It's one thing to omit a vista or imply rather than show a scene. To have others occupy a space in order to focus the metaphorical emphasis of that scene (or its omission) is a further step - but to replace it with something else is really stretching the disbelief-suspension envelope for an audience. I think Loy has thought, reasonably, that Wagner's allusions to reality are generally metaphors anyway. Tristan is, after all, a philosophical discourse poetised for lyrical delivery. It's meant to be abstract at face value. The problem I have (this being the case) is that Loy is substituting this 'metaphorical' staging for some other one - and consequently the audience must work twice as hard, jumping from what the singers are talking about to what it means twice instead of just once. It's not more direct, it's actually more complicated.
Loy is a modernising reductionist, who "doesn't like superficial distractions" (more Lulu-quote), i.e. he wants to get at the drama at the core of the piece. Well, that's all fine and good, but in order to dramatise a work one has to dress it to a certain extent. Loy chooses a stark modern idiom which is fairly close to the unsullied palette to be found near the 'core' of any piece. Yet some dressing is necessary, some 'distraction' (read mediation) and Loy's decision in this production is at odds to what is in the text.
I liked one or two other directorial decision - slo-mo sequences in the background are an interesting response to the time-stretching solipsisms of the eponymous principals downstage. I also liked the violence of the red on black-on-white as the final massacre comes about in its frenetic final pocket of the third act. People have been referring to this as the 'Tarantino Tristan', in reference to Reservoir Dogs (and also as Reservoir Dogs is a film in which a significant pre-story is recounted but not shown).
Ultimately Tristan is a difficult opera to stage and it's down to the cast and orchestra to make its case. Pappano certainly knows how it 'goes' and one hopes that its intent comes alive during the run.