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Tristan Now He’s Older

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on June 3, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Review – Tristan und Isolde (Welsh National Opera, Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Saturday 2 June 2012)

Tristan – Ben Heppner
Isolde – Ann Petersen
Brangäne – Susan Bickley
Kurwenal – Phillip Joll
King Marke – Matthew Best
Sailor & Shepherd – Simon Crosby Buttle
Helmsman – Julian Boyce

Director & Designer – Yannis Kokkos
Revival Director – Peter Watson
Original Lighting Director – Guido Levi
Lighting Realised by – Paul Woodfield

Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Conductor – Lothar Koenigs

It is wonderful and inspiring to think that some of the best Wagner performances in the UK are not happening in London but elsewhere in the UK. For example, Opera North’s near perfect Das Rheingold after which I am very much looking forward to their Die Walküre this summer. And there was a moment during Welsh National Opera’s final performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Millennium Centre when it dawned on me that the evening’s performance was exceptional from which the evening’s sideshow distractions could not detract .

It was the beautifully nuanced cor anglais playing of Max Spiers in the Third Act. More often than not, both in live performances and on disc, this moment is overlooked. Under the baton of Maestro Koenigs, Spiers attention to rhythm and dynamic contrast and the overall phrasing underlined the exceptional musicianship of conductor and orchestra alike.

Indeed from the first Tristan chord, the night belonged to the players in the pit. The strings played with great warmth, except and deliberately at the opening of the final act where they eschewed any colour and produced exactly the right sound – bled of any vibrato to reflect the desolation that the audience were presented with as the curtain rose. The wind playing was translucent and a perfect foil to the percussive brass playing. And rarely have i heard each and every note of the off-stage horns in the Second Act so clearly articulated.

And after the opening chords of the Prelude, which Koenig allowed to hang in the air, suspended almost in time, he then drove his players and singers inexorably forward towards the end, pausing again only before the Liebestod itself, as if drawing breath. In the programme, Lothar Koenig remarked that Tristan und Isolde was the first opera he ever saw as he grew up in Aachen. Not only did he see eight subsequent performances of that production, but he resolved to become a conductor.

And the audience was amply rewarded. Only on the rarest of occasions did they threaten to drown out the singers and only once, when Tristan and Isolde were reunited at the beginning of the Second Act did the momentum threaten to wrest itself from his grasp. Yet it was his overall marshalling of the orchestra, with the greatest care and attention given to detail, that enabled the chief protagonists to give their very best.

A great deal has been written about “Ben Heppner’s Tristan”. I was unlucky to fall victim to both his and Deborah Voigt’s cancellations during their Met run in 2008, but I did see him alongside Nina Stemme in Christof Loy’s production for Covent Garden. It was not good. Not good at all.

So I admit to more than a certain amount of trepidation as I arrived in Cardiff. But it was, on the whole, misplaced. Heppner is an incredible musician and his knowledge and experience of this role is without comparison. And it was this talent and ingrained knowledge, combined with brilliant support from Koenig, the orchestra and his Isolde, that made this a most mesmerising and compelling performance. Of course all the notes were not there.

Of course there was more than ample evidence that this role doesn’t so much challenge him but more drives him beyond his current vocal stamina. But it was a great performance. There were moments of clear discomfort in the Second Act but those who stayed for his monologue in the final act – and yes some people seemed to have left in the interval – witnessed an incredible performance. Heppner’s delivery of the text was as clear as crystal and he invested the words with real passion and understanding. Yet it was a performance that clearly took no prisoners in terms of the physical demands.

Wrong as it may be to suggest it, but how many Tristans does Heppner have left one wonders? I hope he records it in the safety of a multi-session recording before he finally agrees to retire the role to Kareol.

Alongside Heppner was the radiant Isolde of Ann Petersen. Clearly there is something in the water of Scandinavia – or at least in the training they give their sopranos – which has created such a list of magnificent Isoldes. And while Ms Petersen might not yet be magnificent she isn’t that far off as her stature in the role continues to grow and develop. While she may not have the ‘biggest voice’, Ann Petersen’s performance was one of great intelligence, musicianship and, when it mattered, heft combined with a clear and bright tone. At no point – and once again due to Koenig’s masterful control of the orchestra – could she not be heard above or – just as importantly – through the orchestra. She supported and led Heppner through the Second Act and spun some of the most delicate singing as I have ever heard in what is often just seen as an ever-increasing crescendo that starts forte. And he musicianship elicited a similar performance from Heppner. And her Liebestod was simply beautiful. With none of the more common directorial gimmicks to distract, everything and everyone was focused on her performance. And it was, as I said, radiant. As the light finally faded you felt the audience truly believed she had been transfigured through her love of Tristan. Magical.

And as with Heppner, every word was invested with meaning and incredibly clear. I want to see and hear more of Ms Petersen, not only as Isolde but as other Wagner heroines as well as Strauss’ Marschallin.

And perhaps because the stage was dominated by two such strong and focused performances, the remaining singers were in sharp and lacking relief. I am afraid I am not convinced that Brangäne is a role for Susan Bickley. She delivered a musically accomplished performance but there was a metallic brittleness to and lack of warmth in her voice that at times verged on the unpleasant.

Of the men it was the Sailor/Shepherd of Simon Crosby Buttle and the Helmsman of Julian Boyce that were most well sung and beautifully phrased. For me, Matthew Best’s King Marke had all the notes but was bland and the Kurwenal of Phillip Joll was too blustery and had a real lack of diction.

The staging – as was clear from an interview with Yannis Kokkos in the programme – more than nodded to both Adolphe Appia and Wieland Wagner with devices including a frame within the proscenium arch, hints at, but no delivery or understanding of the importance of lighting and their focus on the relationship of shapes and angles with the space that the drama inhabits.

For example, having hinted at, and focused on the only curve on the stage in the first act, where Isolde draped herself, it didn’t feature again although it remained until the end. The Second Act felt too hemmed in with its two-dimensional wood and curving balustrade. Neither added depth or were sufficiently knitted into the narrative except for the obvious use in Brangäne’s warning. All the soldiers for example, simply looked awkward – and slightly Ming-The-Merciless-Meets-Buster-Crabbe – as King Marke sang his monologue of betrayal.

I always thought revivals were an opportunity to review and learn, much as one hopes that when Covent Garden revives their Loy production they don’t allow him to shunt everything to stage-left again. My friend who attended with me said it was the same production with no changes from 1993 so what did Peter Watson do? He clearly even didn’t think of redirecting the two hapless singers to avoid the ham acting in their Second Act duet. And there was one word for Act Three. Clutter. After the minimal clarity of the first act and the ‘here’s-one-I-prepared-earlier’ Second Act, Kareol looked distinctly, well, messy. Loy littered his final act with toys and memento mori of Tristan’s childhood, Yannis Kokos and Peter Watson clearly visited the local beach or driftwood shop. If they were inspired by Appia and Wieland why suddenly the over-crowded set which simply distracted from the simplicity of Wagner’s drama. Beats me.

Even the lighting was less than inspired until the very closing moments.

However the simple fact is that Kokkos’ production did not detract from the incredible level of musicianship and commitment of the Tristan and Isolde and the players in the pit. All brilliantly led and inspired by Lothar Koenigs.

For this we have the original conductor, performers and director of that Tristan und Isolde all those years ago in Aachen to thank.

Further Reading
1. Something Rotten In The Opera House In Gotham
2. Wolfram Alpha – A Lesson In Perfection
3. More Circus Clown Than Ring Master – An Open Letter To Robert LePage

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  1. […] never get to Cardiff enough to see Welsh National Opera – lamentably I didn’t see their Tudors productions – so it was good news that they have […]

  2. […] playing their own critical role in weaving together Wagner’s incredible canvas. Koenig’s Wagnerian credentials are second to none already, and in this performance he demonstrated that he firmly understands the […]

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