Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a challenging piece for a fully equipped opera house to stage. It’s a vaultingly ambitious project for an orchestra to undertake, without any of the technical back-up that exists in a working theatre, but that hasn’t stopped Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor, from taking it on. Back in 2004 in Los Angeles, he created the all-enveloping, sensurround Tristan Project, in collaboration with director Peter Sellars and artist Bill Viola, and it is this, in a concert version, that has been touring Switzerland and Germany and the UK for the best part of a month before a final performance at the Royal Festival Hall on 26 September.
This version of Tristan und Isolde brings the musicians out of the orchestra pit and onto the stage, on a level with the singers. Over their heads is a vast screen – 11m x 6.6m – onto which are projected images, of fire and water, faces and reflections, moonlight and waves. The screen is in a horizontal position for the first two acts and then pivots on its own axis to a vertical position. The entire thing, including the rotation mechanism, weighs 1740kg (as much as a standard car), and has to be transported to and erected in each separate venue. Singers and solo instrumentalists perform from numerous different places within the concert hall, which produces an extraordinary three-dimensional effect, immersing the audience in Wagner’s music.
I was brought in by the Philharmonia to put together a mini opera production team of technical director and stage managers, and then to look after the singers and keep things on track while the show went on the road. We started with rehearsals in London …
Monday 30 August
I wait at the Southbank artists’ entrance to greet the singers as they arrive, equipped with a sheet of agents’ photographs for purposes of identification. A tall man with a tenor’s expansive chest comes through the door and spots me checking my crib sheet. He roars with laughter, tells me I’d make a lousy spy and introduces himself as Gary Lehman aka Tristan.
One by one, all the singers turn up and we assemble in the Green Room for a session with Peter Sellars, who we only have for two precious days due to unavoidable prior commitments. I’ve never met him before, but have admired him inordinately ever since his heartbreaking production of Handel’s Theodora at Glyndebourne in 1996 and he’s exactly as impassioned, fizzingly energised and synapse-crackling brilliant as I’d imagined. He tells us how the video images were put together, filmed in locations from the Sierra Nevada to the Mojave Desert, and how they flow and breathe with the music, adjusted minutely during each performance. He talks about the way the two main characters will risk anything because from the outset they don’t expect to live, and is so vulnerably intent we’re hanging on his every word. As he describes the terrible bleakness of Tristan dying before King Marke can reach him, tears begin to stream down his face. He scrubs them away and carries on.
Most opera productions have a gentle lead-up, with piano rehearsals and work on the first elements of staging. Not here. We’re wham bam, in at the deep end, on stage with the full orchestra. Esa-Pekka has a streaming cold and his chest sounds like a boiling kettle but he’s onto that podium and we’re off.
I never get used to, or stop being delighted by, the way in which singers produce the most astonishingly beautiful sounds even when in semi-powered, getting through rehearsal mode. While fully engaged in a detailed musical exchange of information about a casket full of magical balm, poisons and of course love potion, Anne Sofie von Otter (Brangäne) unlaces her shoes and stretches her legs, while Violeta Urmana (Isolde) fishes a tube of handcream out of the large bag she has slung over one shoulder and starts to apply it.
The stage managers, Jocelyn Bundy and Paul Carr, have got aching calf muscles from the endless running up and down stairs they need to do in order to get singers and players into all manner of different offstage positions, from the highest balconies to the Royal Box. Not having an easily raidable props department to hand, Joss proves herself invaluable by offering to supply (a) a small megaphone and (b) a pair of knee-pads from her own personal collection.
Joshua Ellicott isn’t required for this afternoon’s rehearsal but Esa-Pekka changes the order of what he wants to do and we have to get him back in a hurry. He’s been swimming in the Serpentine but makes it back in the nick of time, his hair still slightly damp.
We have an audience for the dress rehearsal and it makes a huge difference to the sound and to adrenaline levels. It’s the first time we’ve run the piece all the way through with the projections and the closing images, as Isolde’s Liebestod spins into the air, make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
Think of useful items for the general good to pack along with clothes for the next two weeks: Nurofen, scissors, Post-It notes, torch, teabags.
Early departure from City Airport. Tick tick: all singers present and correct. Minibus from Zurich to Lucerne, which is under a damp grey lid of cloud. The Kultur und Kongresszentrum (KKL) where we’re due to perform, has a knock-out design by Jean Nouvel with a wafer-thin tilting shard of a roof. Backstage, I attempt to take the stairs rather than a lift and get stuck between two doors that open one way but not the other without a pass-key. Am rescued by the Philharmonia’s brilliantly organised administrator Isolde (yes, really).
The team in Dortmund are worried about the weight of the screen and whether their rigging can support it. Our technical director Damian ditches his only day off, checks the train schedules and goes over there to reassure them. Our paths cross outside Lucerne station as he arrives back at around 10pm.
Matthew Best/King Marke has been battling a miserable throat infection and needs to see a doctor. I remember the German for ear, nose and throat and Matthew remembers his E111 card, which gets him free and impressively prompt attention at the local hospital. He should be alright for the performance tomorrow but is clearly relieved to be told that the measures he’s been taking on his own account are absolutely appropriate.
Brilliant sunshine so get up early and walk round lake to Haus Tribschen, where Wagner lived for six years. There’s a ferocious-looking bust of him in the grounds, so I pat him on the head for luck. Have got first night nerves and I’m not even singing. Try not to communicate this to anyone as I go round the dressing rooms.
The performance goes down better than anyone could have hoped. Rapt stillness at the end then tumultuous applause, the entire audience on its feet. Text Peter Sellars in New York to let him know. He texts straight back, thrilled.
Some of us are looking a bit bleary as we head for the airport at 7.30am but the orchestra’s schedule is so much more gruelling than ours (they’re playing concerts in Milan and Turin before they rejoin us) that nobody’s complaining. The first thing we see as we arrive in downtown Dortmund is a large poster of Esa-Pekka in action with weird graphic effects making it look as if his baton is trailing sparkles of light like a magic wand – Harry Potter Salonen?
Everyone loves German hotel breakfasts. Respect for colleagues’ possible desire to be alone with a headache and a newspaper seems to have been abandoned and endless anecdotes are swapped over the rye bread, boiled eggs and smoked ham. I now know quite a lot about Land Rovers, the unpredictable nature of elks (from Jukka Rasilainen/Kurwenal, a Finn, presumably a reliable source), and Gary’s technique for dealing with foot cramps while he’s lying around dying for most of act three. The fabulous Elsa (in charge of the staging) can’t speak until she’s drunk a pint of orange juice.
There’s quite a long gap before the next performance and most of the soloists have scarpered, leaving the production and technical teams to try and find things to do in Dortmund. There are a lot of cheap clothes shops, and a coal mining museum …
A non-Wagner concert and Esa-Pekka and the orchestra are just showing off now. Their account of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen is absolutely ravishing and Jill Crowther plays the Swan of Tuonela section as exquisitely as she does her cor anglais solo in Tristan.
Performance day again. When Esa-Pekka comes off stage after being on his feet conducting for over five hours he has a cold beer waiting for him, which goes straight down without touching the sides. I perform the single act which may validate my presence on this tour by arranging for beer to be waiting for the singers too. They are very happy.
It’s another big success and Wagnerian post-performance relief and elation drives some of us, including our new best friends Tilmann and Florian from the Dortmund concert hall, on a bit of a bar crawl. The hard core ends up back at the hotel where at 5am we are spotted by an amazed Violeta, who’s been in bed for hours and is now on her way to catch an early flight home to Munich.
A couple of days back in London – just time to do laundry and catch up with the Archers omnibus.
Accommodation in Birmingham has proved something of a nightmare as one of the hotels booked proved to have paper-thin walls and beds too short to contain some of our (not unreasonably tall) team members and at this short notice we can’t find enough alternative rooms to enable everyone to stay in the same hotel. Apart from the performers, the people who most need sleep, quiet and comfort are the technical and production crew who are working against the clock and having to do all-night stints in order to get the screen in place and the lighting sorted.
Somehow or other, a change in schedule has not been communicated to Esa-Pekka and he finds himself in a deserted Symphony Hall at 9am, wondering where everyone has gone. Joined in a tumbling rush by Elsa (still with sheet marks on her face from having jumped out of bed so fast), a couple of singers and me (swallowing the last of my breakfast toast and marmalade), he describes it as a ‘Fellini moment’ and is quite astonishingly good-natured about what can only truthfully be described as a complete cock-up.
We’ve now performed this opera in two white-walled, contemporary concert halls so the pinkish red upholstery and shiny silver chrome of the Birmingham hall come as a bit of a shock. The sound is wonderful though and I think that out of the three venues so far, this performance emerges with the most translucence and brightness of tone.
The Royal Festival Hall feels like home after our weeks on the road. Everyone’s tired, Gary has a cold but there’s a feeling of keyed-up determination to make this final performance a memorable one. The hall is packed and Bill Viola is in the audience, although sadly not with Peter Sellars, who is on his way to Mali. I spend the first two acts in the auditorium and the third act in the strange twilit backstage between-world, where performers do stretching exercises and run through their own tried and trusted selection of vocal yelps and trills before making their entrances. Esa-Pekka and Jukka are muttering to each other in Finnish; Esa-Pekka breaks off, winks at me and says ‘We’re talking about elks’, then saunters through the curtains and on stage to conduct act three.
The heightened, super-charged experience of drowning in this intoxicating musical and visual world for the best part of a month has made our little travelling Tristan troupe into a tight team and the disbanding of it is bound to be emotional. With the sound of roaring applause coming from the audience, everyone gathers in the wings to go on for their curtain calls. We look at each other, dazed and elated. It’s impossible to believe it’s all over.