Tristan und Isolde in Berne

It is always disruptive of a performance when one of the leading singers is sick and a last-minute replacement has to step in. One would have thought that this would be less problematic when the opera is Tristan und Isolde, for the action is straightforward with little stage business called for. Not so with Ludger Engels’ production in Berne.  His unconvincing and distracting Regiekonzept was to explore the nature of love in an artist’s studio, the couple distancing themselves from the past and conventional morality through creative activity there. So, Heike Börner the replacement Tristan had quickly to adjust to daubing himself with paint and dismantling and rebuilding pieces of sculpture. The worst was in Act Two. Here, for their sublime duet, the two lovers surrounded by mirrors had to don bespangled cloaks and their efforts to elevate themselves from terrestrial conventions was seriously undermined by the difficulty they had in getting the hoods to fit over their heads. Poor Herr Börner who struggled manfully throughout the rest of the evening to meet the demands made of him was at a loss what to do in this scene and what should have been the centrepiece of the performance became simply ridiculous. The pitifully muted applause from a large audience after the curtain had fallen on the sad spectacle said it all.

There were, it has to be admitted, positive features to the performance which compensated for these serious shortcomings. In the pit Berne’s music director Kevin John Edusei led the musical dimension with an absorbing interpretation which was neither symphonic nor lyrical in character but rather excitingly dramatic. Every phrase, every harmonic or rhythmic pattern, seemed pregnant with meaning and an essential complement to the text. Lee Bisset, familiar to British audiences, inhabited the role of Isolde. This Irische Maid was a fiery young woman, imaginative, quick to sense the humour of a situation, as well as passionate. Physically agile and with responsive facial expressions, she adapted well to the quirky production. Vocally, apart from an occasional pronounced vibrato when at full volume, she gave a commanding performance. Notwithstanding the handicaps already described, Heike Börner was a forthright Tristan, deploying his baritonal tenor to good effect. Robin Adams and Claude Eichenberger provided excellent support as Kurwenal and Brangäne and Kai Wegner’s sonorous bass communicated with pathos the rueful regrets of König Marke.