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Seen and Heard Festival Review


Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Soloists, conducted by Jonathan Nott, Edinburgh International Festival, Usher Hall, 30 August 2005 (JP)



At the Edinburgh Festival’s reception for the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra’s week-long residency I was approached by one of their viola players. He had overheard that I had been recently in Bayreuth and where, until just a week or so before we met, he had been playing in the Bayreuth orchestra, ‘Well please tell me what that production was all about, we were in the orchestra and what we saw we did not understand.’


Two things arise from this – firstly the debt the orchestra at the Bayreuth Festival owes to the inclusion of musicians from its neighbouring city’s Symphony Orchestra, so much so that Brian McMaster, whose penultimate Edinburgh Festival this was as director, wondered to me, ‘How did they cope for the final few Bayreuth performances with half of them gone?’ Secondly, how grateful we should sometimes be for concert performances of Wagner’s operas. Elsewhere I wrote about the Bayreuth performance I had seen just a couple of weeks earlier ‘each Act had an unchanging set and not much more happened than I might expect to see (or not) in the concert performance of this work soon at the Edinburgh Festival.’


In July I had been privileged to be present at the Proms for what turned out to be a semi-staged performance of Die Walküre with the cast and orchestra from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and if I may be allowed to quote myself I wrote about that: ‘Any previous readers of mine will have noted my tirades against concert performances of operas with music stands and no interaction between artists. This has developed over recent years, but more often than not, these are often hybrid occasions with some singers secure with their parts, others singing ‘on the book’. Here devoid of costumes and props – and in an eclectic mix of semi-formal wear (but thankfully no white tie and tails!) a capacity audience experienced the true drama of Walküre and Wagner. Where at Covent Garden the story is obfuscated by Keith Warner’s feverish imagination the singers seemed liberated and totally unhindered in their ability to communicate with everyone throughout the auditorium, from the standing Promenaders to those up in the distant Gallery.’


Well there you have it – the pros and cons of opera away from the opera house! In the Usher Hall on 30 August we did indeed have one of these ‘hybrid’ occasions but that part of it did not matter so much because the audience could wallow in the orchestra’s luxuriant sound, follow the words printed in the programme which – surtitles notwithstanding – is something of a luxury in the theatre and even empathize with one of the character’s plight, since the tenor made a valiant effort to survive the night in the way Tristan wants to live to see Isolde one last time.


Curiously at the Proms Plácido Domingo sweated, coughed and gulped water throughout his performance of Siegmund, a small role (in Wagnerian terms) compared to Tristan – and very little was mentioned in his reviews. In Edinburgh everyone became fixated by the tenor, Christian Franz’s bottles of water and his other ‘medicaments’. He only had two twenty minute intervals between the acts in a performance lasting almost five hours. Wagner’s first Tristan virtually died with his boots on and so we should be grateful to such an intelligent singer, under the weather or not, who is able to bring Tristan to such vivid life, either in the height of ecstasy or in the maddening delirium of his character’s pain. Yes, his never beautiful voice was rather raw towards the end for his shouts of ‘furchtbarer Trank!’ but he conjured up a most effecting ‘Isolde!’ before expiring, or rather retiring back down to his chair from which he had earlier risen to perform this mammoth role from memory and commanding our attention all the better for it.


He was well matched by some wonderful singers making the ‘smaller’ contributions mostly behind their music stands, Juha Uusitalo was a giant of a Kurwenal in both voice and stature and John Relyea a suitably expressive König Marke, Andrew Kennedy, the song prize-winner at this year’s Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, doubled tellingly as Young Sailor and the Shepherd.


Jane Irwin has a fairly high mezzo voice and was a wonderful Brängane who plangently sang her ‘Einsam wachend in der Nacht’ from behind the orchestra. The finest Isolde of her generation, Waltraud Meier, is also a mezzo and there was something in me hoping that Jane Irwin, a favourite of the Edinburgh Festival, may be heading down that path. Certainly I wished she was ready to do it at this concert, because much of the pre-publicity for this performance centred on the fact that Christine Brewer was singing the entire role of Isolde in a concert for the first time (having previously sung the individual Acts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra over an extended period of time). Frankly it seemed like just the first effort it was and she seemed ill-prepared and ill-at-ease. Of course there were some lovely moments when she thrillingly cut through the orchestral tumult during her Act I ‘Narration’ and she often floated her voice exquisitely in Act II but, for me, she fluffed the Liebestod which on many occasions, when I have heard it sung well, can have a ‘mind-altering’ effect on me.


At Bayreuth this year the debutant conductor, Eiji Oue went compellingly with the flow but had not yet learned what to do when the music lingers and then it all appeared to drift (he will not be returning to conduct it again next year and has been replaced by Peter Schneider). In Edinburgh it was another young man’s account of the score. However, here Jonathan Nott never allowed the pace to slacken even though he tended to skim over the more reflective episodes in readiness to give those moments of supreme drama everything he and the orchestra could offer. As a result he sometimes let his musicians have their own way too much and a shift in dynamics towards the singers would have been appreciated as they were occasionally floundering against the sheer volume of exquisitely burnished tone coming from the massed ranks behind them, with some individuals in the orchestra making significant solo contributions throughout the evening particularly from amongst the woodwind. However I felt that Jonathan Nott, unlike the conductor at Bayreuth, had an emotional grip on the music that belied his experience of conducting it.


At the end of the evening over two-thirds of a packed Usher Hall rose to their feet to acclaim this performance of a work they were fortunate to have been able to have the opportunity to hear considering the current parlous state of their own Scottish Opera, a company ruined by Wagner’s Ring.



© Jim Pritchard


(For the reviews quoted from above please Click Here )  



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