Saturday 2 October 2010

Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Festival Hall

I must confess that we originally booked tickets for the Philharmonia Orchestra's performance on Sunday of Tristan und Isolde, purely on the basis that Christine Brewer was to sing Isolde. In the event Brewer withdrew and was replaced by Violeta Urmana and the concert performance gained the added attraction of the Bill Viola videos designed for Peter Sellers production of the opera seen in LA and Paris.

As it happened, we were sitting at the side of the stalls so we did not have an optimal view, we could either see the soloists or the videos, but not both at the same time. Those sitting in the centre of the stalls would have seen the soloists with the video looming behind.

Though this was a concert performance, the singers were off the book and some attempts were made at entrances and exits and character interaction. Additionally much use was made of the RFH itself with many of the smaller solos coming from different parts of the hall. Some of this worked well such as having Tristan (Gary Lehman) and Kurwenal (Jukka Rasilainen) standing on the balcony above the stage during Act 1. But at other times this felt contrived, as in Act 2 for Tristan's entrance when Lehman and Urmana had to greet each other across the full width of the RFH stalls.

This was a very vivid urgent performance, thanks to the superb playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra with conductor Esa-Peka Salonen keeping the music moving. This Tristan und Isolde never felt fast, but it flowed along, a far cry from the magical stasis that some conductors aim for. Under Salonen's baton the Prelude wasn't quite in a slow 2, but was definitely in a defined tempo.

When I last heard Urmana, the top of her voice seemed a little unstable under pressure as if the move to soprano repertoire had still not settled. There were no such problems here. She sang Isolde with a wonderfully clear bright tone. She was clearly managing her voice, but this paid off as she seemed tireless, giving the closing Liebestod the same vividness she brought to the opening.

That said, I found Urmana a rather placid artist; one perhaps who needs a fully staged production with an enlivening producer, to give her most. She seemed at her best in Act 1, when her account of Isolde's curse was terrific (memories of Gwyneth Jones) and her dialogues with Lehman's Tristan fairly crackled.

But in the love duet her leisurely sensuality seemed to whip itself into erotic frenzy rather too late. And I have rarely heard the Liebestod so beautifully sung, but it didn't wring the withers the way it should.

Gary Lehman was quite a find as Tristan. Granted, we were sitting quite close to him in the RFH, so it is difficult to judge how his voice would sound if you were sitting in the gods of the Royal Opera House. But he seemed tireless and you never felt that he was obviously husbanding resources; like Urmana he managed to start just as he finished.

Lehman seems to be vivid artist and with the help of a producer could create a striking Tristan. Even in this semi-staged version he was eminently watchable, obviously thinking about his character. His closing scene was notable for the way he conveyed Tristan's delirium. That said, I did wish he had taken a few more risks at this point, his singing lacked danger.

Jukka Rasilainen was an ideal Kurwenal, a bluff soldierly presence who conveyed his car for his master. I'd like to encounter him on stage as he conveyed much even with the minimal resources available to him.

Anne Sofie von Otter was effective as Brangäne. If that sounds grudging it is because I have always thought it a pig of a part. Von Otter did what was needed of her, sang with warm tones and dramatic impetus.

I think that Matthew Best was a good King Marke. But I find the role to be a prosy bore and Best didn't quite convince me otherwise. The remaining cast, Stephen Gadd as Melot, Joshua Ellicott as the Shepherd and the Sailor, Darren Jeffrey as the helmsman were all well cast.

As for the accompanying video, it was at best a fascinating commentary and at worst a distraction. For me, it failed to achieve the status of parallel work of art to which it seemed to aspire. The generalised images, the sea at the opening of Act 1, the later images of forest, sunset etc., were evocative. The closing images of the dead Tristan were astonishing, the watery images of Tristan and Isolde were evocative but verging on the disquieting when the young couple (in Act 2) appeared to drown themselves.

But a major miscalculation was the sequence during Isolde's curse in Act 1. Viola had set this as purification, with the couple disrobing and being anointed with water, certainly not what the act is about. More serious, during Isolde's curse, when Urmana was at her most vivid, she was juxtaposed with images of the man and woman removing the last vestiges of clothing and standing naked - a profound and unnecessary distraction which did nothing to enhance the music.

The Philharmonia Orchestra filled the stage and played with gusto, quite a challenge for the singers. In face there were few balance problems. And the close of Act 1, with the extra trumpets at the back of the stalls and the chorus in the balcony was the most exciting I have ever heard.

This was one of the most beautifully sung and played accounts of Tristan und Isolde that I have heard in a long time. I do hope that Salonen and the orchestra manage to get one of the live performances to CD as it deserves to be heard again.

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