Reviewing the first-ever Tristan und Isolde of Hong Kong

If Tristan und Isolde is seen as a spiritual journey of gradual separation from the real world and the lovers’ increasing isolation in their own and eventual reunion through death, Willy Decker’s production is a symbolic journey of two persons in total isolation, materially or spiritually.

Rich in colour and bare in imagery, this production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by Leipzig Opera has one particular element uniquely identifies this opera missing: passion. Or, intense passion, erotic passion, feverish love, yearning of death. Wrapped in an oversized wooden box, the entire performance is rather cool. Singing in loud yearning of love and death, the emotion poured from the words is heard as a statement, a matter of fact, deliberately under control.

The lovers, Tristan and Isolde, rarely embraces, and they never kiss each other. Free from any intense interaction between the two sexes, the Tristan and Isolde is from isolation to isolation. This may be one of the most children-safe versions of Tristan und Isolde ever in history.

There is an interesting mix of convention and avant-garde. With two vast but minimal back plates and a lone boat in the middle of the tilted stage floor, the scene is neither of a sea or of a land. The potions are put in a wooden witchcraft box; Brangäne extinguishes a torch of candles; blindnesses are self-inflicted injuries on their eyes. Many actions have been given some modern twists in Tristan, the aura of Mr. Decker’s production is antiquely nostalgic in many details. Yet this is after you have settled on your seat after being shocked by the immense, surreal set.

The transformations, first by the love potion and at last by death, however, are done very mildly. Perhaps one may find the power of drama within the magical stillness and coolness (or nothingness if you prefer). Unfortunately this does not happen to me.

Every singer who survives Isolde is a heroine. Jennifer Wilson is a very adapted Isolde, having performed this opera in Leipzig (with the same conductor) and she sustains the intensity with full five hours. Sometimes I am beaten off by her coolness. She is rather unmoved, from her voice you cannot tell she is in vengeance or in yearning. Stefan Vinke is a passionate Tristan, who has a powerful display of his vocal dramaturge in the monologue of Act III. The supporting characters deserve much praise, especially Brangäne by Susan Mcclean and King Marke by Matthew Best.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus plays with all the wit and power. The magical ensemble delivers with great sensitivity which makes hearing them playing a great joy of the evening. Axel Kober, a veteran conductor of Tristan und Isolde, is not pushing for a sheer volume but drawing intimacy from the huge orchestra.

Opera ticket includes a dinner snack pack. Wine is a separate item.

This is the première of Tristan und Isolde and also the longest opera put on stage in Hong Kong’s history. Starting at 7pm on a Friday, numerous late-comers are herded into the back of the hall, having to stand through the entire Act I. Magically, all are as quiet as everyone seated while watching the drama to unfold. I do not usually complain about applauses, but to the early applause of Liebestod while the music is dying down is, alas, my goodness.


Date: March 18, 2011
Venue: Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Photo © Oper Leipzig

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