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Violeta Urmana [Photo by Christine Schneider]
06 Aug 2010

Prom 21 — Berlioz and Wagner

Period instruments and nineteenth-century grand opera are seldom found on the same stage — or even the same sentence — but as adventurous practitioners increasingly experiment in the repertoire of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, it’s a sight and sound that will inevitably become more familiar.

Prom 21: Hector Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet — love scene; Richard

Isolde: Violeta Urmana; Tristan: Ben Heppner; King Mark: Franz-Josef Selig; Brangäne: Sarah Connolly; Melot: Timothy Robinson; Kurwenal: Henk Neven. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Conductor: Simon Rattle.BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London. Prom 21 Sunday 1st August, 2010.

Above: Violeta Urmana [Photo by Christine Schneider]


And, that’s no bad thing. This concert, the first of Sir Simon Rattle’s three Prom appearances this season, offered the opportunity to hear two great romantic scores performed on contemporary instruments and if the results of the lower pitch and the full, mellow tone of the OAE were not always wholly successful in the dramatic contexts, they were certainly thought-provoking and at times illuminating.

While the decision to present classic dramas of love and death by two cultural giants, Shakespeare and Wagner, seemed a natural and sensible one, it led to a slightly unbalanced programme, with the erotic love scene of Berlioz’s dramatic symphony, Romeo and Juliet, forming a first half lasting only 18 minutes — even in this rather slow reading by Rattle. Berlioz’s vast structure and forces — nine double basses towered over the centre of the platform — were shaped and guided with finesse by Rattle, who was ever alert to the composer’s startling harmonic effects. However, despite the use of copies of nineteenth-century woodwind instruments (for example, the oboes played on models of German instruments c.1865, with an easy, soft lower register; the bassoons employed French instruments c.1840 for the Berlioz, switching to German post-1870 for the Wagner, the latter possessing a darker, less reedy tone which blends well with the horns and clarinets), the sharp individuality of particular instrumental lines was somewhat softened, woodwind colours blending sweetly with the whole but not always delivering their full dramatic impact.

A similar problem was apparent after the interval, in Act 2 of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, where the harmonious whole was achieved at the expense of orchestral incisiveness. Wagner aimed for a unity of instrumental and vocal lines, with the symphonic leitmotivic texture carrying the burden of the emotional and dramatic narrative, in dialogue with declamatory and naturalistic vocal melodies; but here the wash of orchestral sound served primarily as a secure, relaxed back-drop to the singers, who were therefore pushed to the foreground. Adding the fact that this was a concert performance, with no scenery and little dramatic interaction between the soloists, this was hardly the Gesamkunstwerk of Wagner’s ideal.

That said, the concordant orchestral cushion elicited by Rattle did evoke a sense of ‘distance’, and an appropriately ethereal atmosphere, for Tristan’s and Isolde’s desire can never be fulfilled in this world and release from yearning will only be achieved through transcendence. Moreover, particular instrumental effects were not neglected, and the rich palette of the period orchestra was revealed: the off-stage horns signalling the departure of the hunting party were strident and clamorous, while eerie sul ponticello playing by the strings conveyed both the delicacy of the moment and the anxious vulnerability of the lovers. Low woodwind colours intimated the shift from the daylight world to the realms of night, from the mundane to the oblivion of the sub-conscious.

With two renowned Wagnerian specialists in the cast, expectations were high, and it was no surprise that the quality of the singing invested this performance with vigour and compelling drama. Violeta Urmana, as Isolde, had no difficulty filling the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall, her powerful, impassioned soprano always secure and focused, her tone thrillingly ecstatic. Sadly, Ben Heppner’s Tristan was less assured and rather inconsistent. While there is no doubting his innate appreciation of this musical language, there were more than a few wobbles, as he struggled to project. Yet, the exquisite sound for which he is renowned can still genuinely reveal Tristan’s exaltation. Franz-Josef Selig negotiated King Mark’s long monologue with confidence and clarity, conveying both the authority and stature of the betrayed King and the pain caused by Tristan’s disloyalty. Sarah Connolly communicated Brangäne’s distress thoughtfully, with controlled phrasing and delivery. Timothy Robinson (Melot) and Henk Neven (Kurvenal) completed the accomplished cast.

Overall this was a thoughtful and refined performance. But while these two passionate romantic encounters certainly touched the heart they did not, perhaps, quite reach to the soul.

Claire Seymour

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