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S & H Opera Review

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (concert performances), soloists, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles, Barbican, Dec 2002 – Feb 2003 (MB)

The decision to perform this complete Tristan over a period of months is not a unique one. Leonard Bernstein did much the same thing with his Philips recording of the opera – concert performances of each act broken up by monthly intervals. The intention in that case was to generate the excitement of a live performance with the accuracy of a studio recording, something which would work well with the BBC’s conception of this project should they ever be inclined to release it on CD at a later date (all performances were recorded).

But there are drawbacks to this approach. Tristan does not easily lend itself to fragmentary, single act concerts (unlike, say, Act I of Walkürie which does benefit from a single act performance). If Act I of Tristan can almost withstand this approach, Act II cannot, and neither really can Act III, although this is true to a lesser extent. The more serious problem is in the continuity of drama – and it was clearly evident throughout both Acts II and III that intensity was often forsaken at key moments that an undiluted, continuous performance would not have exacerbated. The love scene in Act II, for example, perhaps wasn’t an ideal representation of the mystical state of union one would hear in the opera house – there was something almost pejorative about their rejection of life. Act III suffered from a matter-of-fact depiction of Tristan’s hallucinatory madness. But, these are small criticisms for what remained a very striking – and often powerful – interpretation of the opera.

The key to this Tristan was the conductor, Donald Runnicles, his first performance of the opera in this country. His grasp of the score is little short of masterful and the BBC SO played magnificently for him, persuaded at every bar to reveal glowing string or woodwind detail often overlooked in live (and studio) performances of this work. This was evident immediately from his handling of the Prelude, taken at almost exactly the tempi Wagner suggests. Only Bernstein, Karajan (in 1957) and Reiner (in 1958) inflect this music with a similar dramatic power (and how magnificently Runnicles got the percussion to broaden its sonority at the apex of the Prelude’s impassioned climax and actually make the double basses so clearly audible). There were moments of unease – the opening ‘cellos, for example, so perilously exposed, lacked unity and finesse – but these were short lived; but when the Prelude’s motifs are recalled near the close of Act I the playing had by that time achieved a level of perfect tonal balance and harmony. The weightiness which he brought to the strings was often plush – and the BBC ‘cellos and basses were never better than at the opening of the Act III Prelude, even if it was taken at an inordinately slow tempo. It was entirely gripping, as was the stunning playing of the BBC SO’s English Horn player, inflecting every diminuendo and crescendo to perfection.

The very broadness of Runnicles’ interpretation, and an occasional willingness on his part to drown out his singers (both Dagmar Pecková (Brangäne) and John Treleaven (Tristan) had difficulty at times rising above the orchestral swell), placed some cruel demands on his cast. Dominating the opera is the Isolde of the American soprano, Christine Brewer, in an assumption of the role that is breathtaking. Above the stave her voice is solid, and she has such peerless breath control that long notes are sustained with effortless ease. In Act I Ms Brewer brought anguish and turbulence to her voice, firstly when she called upon her mother’s arts to destroy the ship, but most notably during the curse, as chillingly done as I have ever heard it. Ms Brewer battled between reflection and fury, desire and torment, with a barely suppressed anger, as much audible as it was visible. When the curse arrived, with its falling octaves, her voice was able to surmount the intense, long-held fortissimo of the orchestra with thrilling effect. Ms Pecková was less fortunate – beautifully expressive during the recitative with Tristan, but just before Isolde’s Narration unable to rise above the sea of horns and orchestral turmoil embracing her.

Where Ms Pecková is unrivalled is in the colouring of her voice. Moments, such as her Act II recitative about Melot, are infused with an extraordinary range of emotions, evident mostly in her feelings for the words. Rarely have I heard a Brangäne sing with such darkly insinuative phrasing, and yet also retain the emotional compass of the role. As her warnings to Isolde become more urgent – culminating in a near-hysterical third warning prefacing Tristan’s arrival – the detail in the voice is magnificently drawn. It acts as a perfect foil to Ms Brewer’s Act II Isolde, tonally expressive and sung with a broad legato, and so rapturous in its intensity. Indeed, the passion of this act, achieved so effortlessly by both Ms Brewer and Mr Treleaven, despite an occasionally prosaic projection of their ‘love’, is enhanced by Runnicles’ incandescent conducting of the score. Full textured though the orchestral writing is, Runnicles establishes a tempo dictated by the expressivity of his singers and a perfect dynamic balance; fortepiano markings really do sound as they should.

At times John Treleaven sounds as if he has the potential to be one the very greatest Tristans singing today. The voice is marked by a thrilling beauty of tone – his phrasing of the single word ‘Isolde’ at the end of Act I was just outstanding (even bringing a tear to this reviewer’s eyes) – and throughout Act II he brought an incandescent intensity to his voice matched by Ms Brewer’s equally ecstatic invocation of love. ‘O sink herneider nacht der Liebe’ produced the most fabulous legato line from him and throughout the intense duet his voice smouldered with rapturous phrasing. So entwined were the voices – and, unusually, this is a pairing of the lovers with a genuine stage chemistry between them – that when the lovers abandon all inhibitions, vocally and metaphysically, the effect becomes magical. The sudden change in the trajectory of the music, with its unmistakable molto crescendo and discordant harmony breaking the spell, makes it all the more powerful, especially when the duet had been sung with such passion, as it had been here.

At other times, however, Mr Treleaven’s voice can seem underpowered. Fine though his reading of Tristan’s Act III madness was (with the change between despair and exhilaration remarkably achieved), the voice occasionally failed to ride above the orchestra. And, if this was not a performance which appeared as unhinged as, say, John Vickers’ unmatched assumption of this Act (especially in his studio recording with Karajan, but also in his live recordings with Birgit Nilsson from Orange and Vienna in the early 1970s) then it was not the worse because of it. His Act III monologue was delivered with the kind of perceptive irrationality it is rare to hear on stage today – and that should always be enough.

Notable amongst the other singers was the Kurwenal of the Israeli baritone, Boaz Daniel. Another voice transparent in its beauty, Mr Daniel is also a singer with uncommon intelligence. Kurwenal’s love for Tristan in Act III, for example, was notable for this baritone’s ability to meld a voice that dripped with pathos-garnered concern amid benign incredulity. Jared Holt was a fine Melot (and in much better than voice then when I heard him at Christa Ludwig’s masterclass) and should one day make a fine Kurwenal.

And now, to return to Ms Brewer. Few moments in opera equal the sheer beauty of the Transfiguration which closes Tristan. Despite the many fine things in this performance of Tristan – and there were many – few equalled her performance of the Liebestod. She soared magnificently above the orchestra, like a bird in flight, as the voice achieved a hitherto unmatched majesty which fully conveyed the sheer scale of this Isolde’s love for her Tristan. It simply spellbound the audience. Magnificent indeed.

Marc Bridle

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