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Brangäne und (Tristan und) Isolde

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 28, 2013 at 10:52 am

Review – Tristan und Isolde (BBC Prom, Saturday 27 July 2013)

Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
Isolde – Violea Urmana
Brangäne – Mihoko Fujimura
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
King Mark – Kwangchui Youn
Melot – David Wilson-Johnson
Steersman – Edward Price
Shepherd/Young Sailor – Andrew Staples

Cor Anglais – Alison Teale

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra

Semyon Bychov (Conductor)

Personally it was an odd choice for Roger Wright to programme Tristan und Isolde smack bang in the middle of Barenboim’s magnificent Ring cycle at the Proms. With Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried still fresh in the audience’s mind – unkindly or not – comparisons would have been made.

For the most part favourably I would imagine.

It also struck me – attending the Berlin Ring and last night’s performance – how many Prom debuts were being made as a result of the Wagner bicentenary. I just hope that the BBC – with its newfound commitment to ‘culture’ – doesn’t wait another two hundred years.

The beauty of the Proms is that they sometimes reveal to the UK audience a number of previously unknown remarkable performers.

Ultimately I think that this Tristan und Isolde will be remembered for the stand-out and utterly compelling performance of Mihoko Fujimura.

Her Brangäne even surpassed her mistress Isolde with an absolutely stunning performance. Ms Fujimura’s mezzo was both bright and warm with a depth and richness that was missing from her colleagues.

Ms Fujimura gave an impassioned, vocally secure and musically intelligent performance the likes I have not seen since Sofie von Otter for Peter Sellars or Sarah Connolly for Jurowski.

And the singer ensured that her Brangäne was no cipher. Her horror in the First Act was palpable and her interjections in the Second Act nothing short of mesmerizing. Even her final short interjections in the final act were wonderfully accomplished.

It is not surprising that Ms Fujimura was the recipient of the loudest cheer and applause of the evening. So why do we not see more of this mezzo-soprano in the UK?

Sadly Peter Seiffert cancelled as Tristan and was replaced by Robert Dean Smith. I have mixed feelings about this tenor. Having seen him previously successfully negotiating the the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten and a splendid Bachhus in Ariadne auf Naxos, his Tannhauser disappointed – it was strained and one dimensional.

And sadly his Tristan was very much the same.

Even having drunk the love potion, this Tristan was emotionally flat and vocally disappointing. The strain of singing this role is most telling as Robert Dean Smith heads towards the end of a phrase – the tone tightens and more often than not the last note is clipped or snatched.

There was some fine singing – especially the opening of the exquisite O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe – but it was rather a Tristan of individual moments, not a sustained performance. At times he resorted to barking above the orchestra – and pace Maestro Bychov, you weren’t always the most sympathetic conductor to you singers – and at points of the vital Third Act monologue completely lost. As a result the dramatic impetus of this marvelous scene was mostly lost on me.

But most distracting was the ever increasing ‘beat’ in his voice that became evident in the Second Act, undermining to an extent the duet.

Again it could be that the venue isn’t doing the singers any favours, but when the vast majority of other singers are managing and in fact overcoming similar challenges, that can only form part of the problem.

Violeta Urmana was by contrast an emotionally intense and vocally formidable Isolde. Her voice may adopt a slightly harsh and brittle tone at the top of her register but she uses it to her advantage. It was thrilling in the curse scene and her confrontation with Tristan in the First Act for example but in the Second Act love scene an added warmth infused her voice. And the Liebestod was both beautiful and dramatic. Rising above the orchestra, Ms Urmana powered up to the inevitable climax but then didn’t fail to float those final few notes perfectly.

Of the rest of the cast Andrew Staples, as the Young Sailor high above our heads after the opening was clear and bright. The remaining singers were passable without being notable. Kwangchui Youn was a solid King Mark – the notes were there if nothing else.

The gentlemen of BBC Symphony Chorus were in fine voice and the Orchestra found that balance between the sensuality and swagger of Wagner’s music. The opening of the Prelude and the final act were beautifully wrought and the fevered intensity of the opening of the second act was both articulate and transparent.

And extra special kudos for the eloquent and haunting playing of Alison Teale. Simply beautiful.

Semyon Bychov himself was a conductor of two extremes with – surprisingly – very little in between. Her drew some excellent playing from the orchestra – as I have mentioned the sensuality was there as were the crowning moments – but there was little of the ebb and flow that Tristan und Isolde should have and some of the tempos – in the duet and final Liebestod for example – felt slightly hurried. And at times the orchestra simply overwhelmed the singers.

It cannot be denied that by the end of the performance this Tristan und Isolde was ‘Proms perfect’ in that sense of a star revealed.

The audience got to hear and revel in the beautiful voice and memorable Brangäne of Ms Mihoko Fujimura.

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  1. Good crit and I agree with all you say except I think you mean Andrew Staples as the young sailor who opened the opera, not Edward Price as the steersman…

  2. […] leading, Wagnerian and operatic conductors performing today. And special mention must be made of Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne in the Tristan und Isolde that was sandwiched into the Ring […]

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