Monday, 18 July 2016

A remarkable swansong - Tristan und Isolde

The Grange
The Grange
Wagner Tristan und Isolde; Rachel Nicholls, Bryan Register, Sara Fulgoni, Stephen Gadd, Mats Almgren, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins; Grange Park Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 16 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A remarkably concentrated and intense of Wagner's music drama

Grange Park Opera closed its 2016 season with a pair of concert performances of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The performances were memorable for non-musical reasons. Cast changes meant the last minute announcement of Rachel Nicholls as Isolde (replacing Anje Kampe) and Mats Almgren as King Mark (replacing Clive Bayley). And the performance on 16 July 2016 represented the last time that Wasfi Kani's company performed at Northington Grange; after 18 years the company is moving to a new theatre at West Horsley Place in Surrey whilst opera at the Grange at Northington continues with a new company, the Grange Festival headed by Michael Chance.

Martyn Brabbins conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with Bryan Register as Tristan, Rachel Nicholls as Isolde, Sara Fulgoni as Brangäne, Mats Almgren as King Mark and Stephen Gadd as Kurwenal. Tristan und Isolde is a suitably valedictory work for such an occasion, and the performance was as remarkable as the circumstance. Billed as a concert performance, the opera was performed in an adaptation of the set from Grange Park Opera's recent production of Verdi's Don Carlo, with the orchestra in the pit (and not on-stage as often happens in concert performances). Both Rachel Nicholls and Bryan Register were off the book, giving a fully dramatic account of their roles and this was echoed by the other principals. Though Mats Almgren, Sara Fulgoni and Stephen Gadd used scores, none was score-bound and their performances were as dramatic and reactive as those of the two principals.

The results were more akin to a stripped back stage production, and given the thrilling immediacy of experiencing the opera in the relatively small confines of the theatre at Northington Grange, the result were gripping. This was due in the main thanks to strongly dramatic and involving performances from the two principals, but also from Martyn Brabbins and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Brabbins' account of the famous prelude was notable for having a sense of dynamism, a feeling that the music was actually going somewhere rather than being a series of luscious chords placed in space.
It wasn't that his account of Wagner's score was particularly fast, but throughout the evening you felt that the architecture of the work was progressing and had an end in view, we didn't constantly pause to admire the scenery. The pit in the theatre is relatively small for Wagner, but the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra never sounded under-powered, and contributed a performance which was notable for the rhythmic precision and sense of clarity supporting the lush score.

Rachel Nicholls sang the role of Isolde at Longborough in 2015 and will be returning to Grange Park Opera at West Horsley Place in 2017 to sing Sieglinde in a new production of Wagner's Die Walkure. She is a relatively slight figure with a bright, focussed and dynamic voice which does not so much ride the orchestra as cut through it. Not since Gwynneth Jones (whom I heard in the role at Covent Garden in 1982) have I heard a performance which brought out Isolde's anger in Act One. Nicholls was every inch the princess, completely commanding and positively quivering with rage at what was happening making her curse quite thrilling. At the end of the opera, Nicholls crowned things with a rapturous account of the Liebestod her voice cutting effortlessly through the orchestra, bringing a sense of vibrancy to the vocal line and an intensity to her performance. Throughout the evening there was an incredible sense of the presence of Nicholls' Isolde, this was an engrossing performance vividly projected.

Bryan Register is a young American tenor who recently sang his first Tristan at Theatre Kiel, and sang Florestan in English National Opera's production of Beethoven's Fidelio. During Act One and Act Two it was apparent that all was not quite well with Bryan Register's voice, and in the second interval it was announced that he was suffering somewhat, but would continue. Thus it would be unfair to comment too strongly on his performance, but we heard enough to realise that he is developing into a notable Tristan. The quieter moments were particularly intense with a strong sense of the language, something that I am not often aware of in Tristan performances. In the first two acts he was clearly pacing himself, yet there was much to enjoy and the climax was a coruscating account of Tristan's great Act Three solo. Yes, we were aware that Register's voice was playing up, but that seemed only to add to the visceral quality of his performance. I do hope to hear him again.

The Act Two love duet was beautifully paced, thanks to the combination of Nicholls, Register and Brabbins. It also benefited from the real sense of relationship between Tristan and Isolde which Nicholls and Register had developed at the end of Act One. In each other's presence they positively quivered. Though the love duet was staged, it was sensibly done giving the music priority. This was not the most luscious account of the duet, but it was one which gripped and thanks to Brabbins pacing took you right to the end.

Stephen Gadd made a strong Kurwenal. Robust and no-nonsense, yet this was only of the most beautifully sung accounts of the role that I have heard. Gadd really made the intimacy of the theatre tell, and though his performance was relatively static it was full of telling and dynamic details which brought the role to life. It was a relief, after the fussiness of much of the recent ENO production, to see a performer who knew how to do very little on stage yet really make it count.

Sara Fulgoni was a darkly dramatic Brangane, using her richly vibrant voice to create a strong sense of foreboding and anxiety. Whereas in the current Covent Garden production, Brangane takes time off to flirt with Kurwenal, Fulgoni's Brangane was projected a feeling of intense care and profound anxiety for her mistress. Fulgoni's voice is not the most relaxed instrument, but she made this count in her favour in the intensity of her performance, even in the off-stage solo moments during the Act Two love-duet.

Fresh from his performances as Fafner and Hunding in the Opera North Ring, Swedish bass Mats Almgren brought a darkly lugubrious quality to King Mark, gripping us with the sheer visceral quality of his performance in King Mark's Act Two monologue. There were times when I wondered whether this lugubriousness was too much, but there is no doubting Almgren's vivid commitment to both music and text.

The smaller roles were very strongly taken by members of Grange Park Opera's ensemble. Adam Tunnicliffe gave a vividly clear account of the Sailor in Act One and the Shepherd in Act Three, Lancelot Nomura was the Steersman, and Felix Kemp was a vividly direct Melot.
The chorus in Act One was the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, singing Wagner's dramatic music at the end with vivid and obvious excitement.

Text was something I kept coming back to in this performance, the joy of being able to follow the German text sung by the singers. Thanks to Martyn Brabbins' care of the balance, the singers were all able to take advantage of the intimacy of the theatre (it seats only 550 with just stalls and a circle). It was wonderful to find the singers all making the drama of Wagner's text really count.

This was very much an ensemble triumph, with strong individual performances combining into something remarkable. The new Grange Park Opera theatre at West Horsley Place will be slightly bigger, with a more resonant acoustic and a bigger pit, thus making it it more suitable for larger operas including Wagner's Die Walkure in 2017 with Rachel Nicholls as Sieglinde. And the Grange Festival at Northington Grange, Michael Chance is returning to smaller scale opera in 2017 with Monteverdi, Bizet and Britten. So this performance of Tristan und Isolde was a swansong in many ways, the final performance of the Grange Park Opera company in this theatre, and also our last chance for some time, to hear Wagner in this wonderfully intimate acoustic.

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