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Richard Wagner
27 Sep 2010

Tristan und Isolde at Royal Festival Hall

Almost irrespective of the results, it was quite a statement to open the Philharmonia’s London concert season with a performance of Nietzsche’s ‘opus metaphysicum of all true art,’ Tristan und Isolde.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Tristan: Gary Lehman; Isolde: Violeta Urmana; Brangäne: Anne Sofie von Otter; King Marke: Matthew Best; Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen; Melot: Stephen Gadd; Shepherd/Young Sailor: Joshua Ellicott; Steersman: Darren Jeffery. Visual Artist: Bill Viola; Artistic Collaborator: Peter Sellars. Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan Oliver); Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday 26 September 2010.


Billed as a concert performance, it was not really, though I could not help wishing that it had been. Peter Sellars’s direction, or ‘artistic collaboration’, is restrained: generally a good thing in Tristan, which needs very little ‘doing’, though that very little can make all the difference. Would that Bill Viola showed such or indeed any restraint with his ‘video art’.

I saw his projections first at the Opéra national de Paris, two years ago. Then I was irritated and distracted, though there was a little more in the way of staging. Here, there was slightly less staging, which worked at least as well. The Royal Festival Hall was used imaginatively, singing from boxes providing, for instance, a nice impression of the ship: it actually put me in mind of the use of the same space for Nono’s Prometeo in 2008. However, I discovered on returning home that my distraction and the rest of my response tallied precisely with what I had written about the Paris performance, so my hopes for further understanding or at least ability to set Viola on one side were dashed. The Southbank Centre’s publicity read: ‘This concert performance will be set against the stunning backdrop of Bill Viola's film projections, further exploring the emotional subtexts of the work.’ Rarely, however, did these projections begin truly to engage with the work, let alone to explore texts or subtexts.

Distraction remains greatest during the first act. ‘Act I,’ to quote Viola, ‘presents the theme of Purification, the universal act of the individual’s preparation for the symbolic sacrifice and death required for the transformation and rebirth of the self.’ We are in the world of Orientalism — or ‘the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Tantra that lie submerged in the Western cultural consciousness’. One wonders whether Viola has ever read Edward Said; he certainly seems blissfully unaware of the pitfalls of evoking ‘the East’ in such a way. Sellars made him aware of ‘this connection to Eastern sources,’ but the outcome was hardly a drawing into ‘Wagner’s 19th-century work’. The first act represents anything but purification; it is instead a reawakening and a headlong rush into catastrophe. As I commented last time, the death that approaches is not sacrificial, but the selfish bidding of Schopenhauer’s Will. (Schopenhauer’s Orientalism might have been well worth pursuing: no such luck.) As the act progresses, the video projections of ceremonial purification seem merely disconnected rather than daringly contradictory; worst of all, they make it difficult to concentrate on the surging musical drama. Some images later on work better: that across the sea at the beginning of the third act, for example, and the magical reverse drowning of the conclusion. But for the most part, this is a display of superimposed self-indulgent Californianism. Candles are lit, of course, since candles show ‘spirituality’. Indeed, throughout, the imagery evokes the tedium of New Age self-fulfilment, which could hardly be further from Wagner’s vision — and which is not sufficient of a counterpoint to evoke true contrast either.

The musical performances were of course a different matter — and it was a sad thing that they were sometimes overwhelmed. Esa-Pekka Salonen steered a sure course through the work, though the miraculous opening prelude began with excessive ponderousness. Though JPE Harper-Scott’s programme note made a powerful case for Tristan as an avowedly tonal drama — I shall return to this at the end — Salonen tended to stress the presentiments of late Mahler and Schoenberg rather than the Romanticism of Wagner’s score. Tristan’s delirious monologue responded especially well to this approach: I am not sure that I have ever heard it sound so clearly as a male Erwartung. But to return to Nietzsche’s description of this as art’s opus metaphysicum, it was the metaphysical that was really lacking. Furtwängler, whose recording with this orchestra, remains the first choice any sane — and perhaps even insane — listener, could not have been more distant. The Philharmonia played extremely well, the strings sounding more German than I have heard them in a while. It was all a little too clinical, though, too well-drilled. Often, I found myself asking: yes, but what does this mean?

Violeta Urmana’s approach was rather different, not in the sense of metaphysics but in assimilating her role to nineteenth-century grand opera. She sang very well and made as dramatic an impression as one could reasonably hope for, but this was Isolde as diva. Her concerns again seemed resolutely of this world, the possibilities of the Schopenhauerian noumenal failing to register. On the more earthbound level, a little Nilsson-like sarcasm or irony would have helped too. Gary Lehman marshalled his resources well as Tristan. His was not a large-scale portrayal, but he did much more than get through the role, which is in itself a rare achievement. The delirium of the third act was perhaps a little too Lieder-like, but it was conveyed, albeit without those metaphysical implications expanding its horizons yet further. Matthew Best’s vibrato was somewhat intrusive as King Marke, especially during the second act, but his third-act forgiveness was humanly credible. I found the vowels of Jukka Rasilainen a little too much in a tradition that seems to mark Finnish singers in German — it must be something to do with the language — but otherwise he did fair enough service, if without scaling the heights or the depths. Anne Sofie von Otter’s Brangäne, however, was impressive in its detailed response. If hers is not the sort of voice I immediately think of for the role, one should retain an open mind in such matters. Her way with the poem was second to none, and her relative coolness, suggestively different from the typical Brangäne, fitted well with Salonen’s approach. I was especially impressed by Joshua Ellicott’s Shepherd: quite heart-rending, as moving a rendition as I can recall.

To return, briefly, to the matter of tonal or atonal (to steal from Schoenberg’s Three Satires), this performance made me reconsider my position somewhat. I am broadly in agreement, or at least I was, with Harper-Scott and others, for instance Roger Scruton, who insist upon the tonal underpinning of Wagner’s score. I now worry a little more, however, that such a reading, tracing its roots ultimately to Heinrich Schenker’s analytical approach, carries with it the danger of underselling what happens in between the opening Prelude and Isolde’s transfiguration. We do not, I hope, simply sit waiting for the end, for that final cadence. Indeed, the generative association of Wagner’s motivic web as well as his harmony carry with them important seeds of the serial constructivism that could lead twentieth-century composers to expansive, open-ended new universes of sound. There is a strong tendency towards the totality in Wagner’s work, of course, but there is also resistance within the material. Salonen’s intimations of Schoenberg heightened this sense — which rethinking, whatever my reservations, is testament to a successful performance.

Mark Berry

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