Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

It felt rather decadent to be sitting in an opera house at 12pm. Even more so given the passion-fuelled excesses of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which might seem rather too sensual and savage for mid-day consumption.

Manitoba Opera: Madama Butterfly

Manitoba Opera opened its 45th season with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly proving that the aching heart as expressed through art knows no racial or cultural divide, with the Italian composer’s self-avowed favourite opera still able to spread its poetic wings across time and space since its Milan premiere in 1904.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake celebrate 25 years of music-making

In 1992, concert promoter Heinz Liebrecht introduced pianist Julius Drake to tenor Ian Bostridge and an acclaimed, inspiring musical partnership was born. On Wenlock Edge formed part of their first programme, at Holkham Hall in Norfolk; and, so, in this recital at Middle Temple Hall, celebrating their 25 years of music-making, the duo included Vaughan Williams’ Housman settings for tenor, piano and string quartet alongside works with a seventeenth-century origin or flavour.

Girls of the Golden West in San Francisco

Not many (maybe any) of the new operas presented by San Francisco Opera over the past 10 years would lure me to the War Memorial Opera House a second time around. But for Girls of the Golden West just now I would be there again tomorrow night and the next, and I am eagerly awaiting all future productions.

DiDonato is superb in Semiramide at Covent Garden

It’s taken a while for Rossini’s Semiramide to reach the Covent Garden stage. The last of the operas which Rossini composed for Italian theatres between 1810-1823, Semiramide has had only one outing at the Royal Opera House since 1887, and that was a concert version in 1986.

Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall

‘His master’s masterpiece, the work of heaven’: ‘a common fountain’ from which flow ‘pure silver drops’. At the risk of effulgent hyperbole, I’d suggest that Antonio’s image of the blessed governance and purifying power of the French court - in the opening scene of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi - is also a perfect metaphor for the voice of French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, as it slips through Handel’s roulades like a silken ribbon.

La Rondine Takes Flight in San Jose

Kudos to San Jose Opera for offering up a wholly winning, consistently captivating new production of Puccini’s seldom performed La Rondine.

Clonter Opera Gala

Clonter’s Opera Gala in the breath-taking beautiful ball-room at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair was a glamorously glittering smattering of opera – which made me want to run out to every opera in town.  

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s splendid, new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conflict and resolution are portrayed throughout with moving intensity. The central character Brünnhilde is sung by Christine Goerke and her father Wotan by Eric Owens.

As One a Haunting Success in San Diego

San Diego Opera has mined solid gold with its mesmerizing and affecting production of As One, a part of their innovative ‘Detour Series.’

OLF: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

Compared to the oft-explored world of German lieder and French chansons, the songs of Russia are unfairly neglected in recordings and in the concert hall. The raw emotion and expansive lyricism present in much of this repertoire was clearly in evidence at the Holywell Music Room for the penultimate day of the celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

Stockhausen’s STIMMUNG and COSMIC PULSES at the Barbican.

This concert was an event on several levels - marking a decade since the death of Stockhausen, the fortieth anniversary (almost to the day) since Singcircle first performed STIMMUNG (at the Round House), and their final public performance of the piece. It was also a rare opportunity to hear (and see) Stockhausen’s last completed purely electronic work, COSMIC PULSES - an overwhelming visual and aural experience that anyone who was at this concert will long remember.

Nico Muhly's Marnie at ENO

Winston Graham’s 1961 novel Marnie was bold for its time. Its themes of sexual repression, psychological suspense and criminality set within the dark social fabric of contemporary Britain are but outlier themes of the anti-heroine’s own narrative of deceit, guilt, multiple identities and blackmail.

TOSCA: A Dramatic Sing-Fest

On November 12, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s verismo opera, Tosca, in a dramatic production directed by Tara Faircloth. Her production utilized realistic scenery from Seattle Opera and detailed costumes from the New York City Opera. Gregory Allen Hirsch’s lighting made the set look like the church of St. Andrea as some of us may have remembered it from time gone by.

The Lighthouse: Shadwell Opera at Hackney Showroom

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … and horror … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.’

Elisabeth Kulman sings Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia

Austrian singer Elisabeth Kulman has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her singing life as a soprano but later shifted to mezzo-soprano/contralto territory. Esteemed on the operatic stage, she relinquished the theatre for the concert platform in 2015, following an accident while rehearsing Tristan.

Tremendous revival of Katie Mitchell's Lucia at the ROH

The morning sickness, miscarriage and maundering wraiths are still present, but Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor, receiving its first revival at the ROH, seems less ‘hysterical’ this time round - and all the more harrowing for it.

Manon in San Francisco

Nothing but a wall and a floor (and an enormous battery of unseen lighting instruments) and two perfectly matched artists, the Manon of soprano Ellie Dehn and the des Grieux of tenor Michael Fabiano, the centerpiece of Paris’ operatic Belle Époque found vibrant presence on the War Memorial stage.

A beguiling Il barbiere di Siviglia from GTO

I had mixed feelings about Annabel Arden’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia when it was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2016. Now reprised (revival director, Sinéad O’Neill) for the autumn 2017 tour, the designs remain a vibrant mosaic of rich hues and Moorish motifs, the supernumeraries - commedia stereotypes cum comic interlopers - infiltrate and interact even more piquantly, and the harpsichords are still flying in, unfathomably, from all angles. But, the drama is a little less hyperactive, the characterisation less larger-than-life. And, this Saturday evening performance went down a treat with the Canterbury crowd on the final night of GTO’s brief residency at the Marlowe Theatre.

Brett Dean's Hamlet: GTO in Canterbury

‘There is no such thing as Hamlet,’ says Matthew Jocelyn in an interview printed in the 2017 Glyndebourne programme book. The librettist of Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera based on the Bard’s most oft-performed tragedy, which was premiered to acclaim in June this year, was noting the variants between the extant sources for the play - the First, or ‘Bad’, Quarto of 1603, which contains just over half of the text of the Second Quarto which published the following year, and the First Folio of 1623 - no one of which can reliably be guaranteed superiority over the other.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Ben Heppner as Tristan and Ann Petersen as Isolde [Photo by David Massey courtesy of Welsh National Opera]
31 May 2012

Tristan und Isolde, Welsh National Opera

Yannis Kokkos originally directed and designed Tristan und Isolde as a co-production for Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera nearly 20 years ago. The production’s latest revival, directed by Peter Watson, was premiered at the Wales Millennium Centre on 19 May 2012.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Sailor: Simon Crosby Buttle; Helmsman: Julian Boyce; Isolde: Ann Petersen; Brangäne: Susan Bickley; Kurwenal: Phillip Joll; Tristan: Ben Heppner; Melot: Simon Thorpe; King Marke: Matthew Best; Shepherd: Simon Crosby Buttle. Conductor: Lothar Koenigs. Director and Designer: Yannis Kokkos. Revival Director: Peter Watson. Choir and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff, 19th May 2012.

Above: Ben Heppner as Tristan and Ann Petersen as Isolde [Photo by David Massey courtesy of Welsh National Opera]

 

A work the size of Tristan und Isolde is something of a challenge for a touring company like WNO and this production will only be played in Cardiff (19/5, 26/5, 2/6) and Birmingham (16/6) with a concert version at the Edinburgh Festival.

The production has worn well and Kokkos’s sets still look very handsome. Kokkos provides a fixed structure of a frame with a frame, and within this uses semi-abstract sets to evoke the ship in act 1, the forest in act 2 and the rocks of Kareol in act 3, in generally cool grey tones. In doing so he gives himself a fluid and flexible acting area. Costumes are timeless, evoking medieval but with quite a heavy reliance on that old stand-by, the great coat. The results mean that the women looked elegant and the men suitably heroic.

Kokkos has not specific axe to grind in the production, no psychological idée fixe and he seems content to tell the story with clarity, and certainly no dramatic additions such as Brangäne’s liaison with Kurwenal during act 2 (in the recent Covent Garden production).

In act 1, Tristan (Ben Heppner) and Kurwenal (Phillip Joll) are on the upper level, behind a scrim, with the the action of the ship evoked in a series of tableaux, whilst at the front Isolde (Ann Petersen) and Brangäne (Susan Bickley) are at the front on the lower level, separated physically and emotionally from the men. In act 2, the forest forms the back-drop for the long sweep of stairs on which the lovers’ meeting takes place. This is not a production where Tristan and Isolde never touch; Kokkos arranges the love-duet into a series of static scenes where the lovers intertwine. For act 3 the set is reduced to a single, huge slab sloping down the stage, resting at the rear on the rocks from which the Shepherd (Simon Crosby Buttle) keeps look-out.

Within this, there was a lot of scope for drama, this opera essentially relying on the interactions between the principals. Here the revival director does not seem to have been able to engender a real dramatic spark between Heppner and Petersen. In act 1, Petersen delivered Isolde’s curse with brilliant vehemence and gleaming tone, but in her scene with Heppner’s Tristan, the two seemed just a little too polite with each other. We relied on the music to transport us. The same happened in act 2, where non action of the love duet very much relied upon the music to give it dramatic impulse. In their solo moments both Heppner and Petersen proved acute, so it was a shame that the two did not develop their relationship more.

Petersen is a young Danish soprano who is developing as a dramatic soprano. Recent engagements have included her first Leonore and Marschallin, along with Elsa, Elizabeth and Ariadne. She has further Isoldes lined up plus Senta, the Empress (Die Frau ohne Schatten) and Sieglinde. That her progress to more dramatic roles is being carefully considered is confirmed by the way she sang Isolde with a voice of great lyric beauty. Her voice rode the orchestra at the crucial points, but she did not force the tone. Conductor Lothar Koenigs seemed to be a sympathetic partner, not pushing the orchestra towards drowning the soprano.

Petersen had a good feel for the text; her coloration of the words was always notable. This was a dramatic performance, certainly not one where the voice was content to coast over Wagner’s luxuriant orchestration. Physically as well, Petersen is an apt performer, ensuring that the unspoken/unsung moments of drama tell for as much as the spoken ones. She was at her best in this in act 1, where there is much that an acute Isolde like Petersen can do to develop the drama.

She was a strong and equal partner to Heppner in the love duet, each egging the other on musically towards the ultimate coitus interruptus of the climax. Here her performance was less dramatic, and you sensed a desire to allow the music space. Though, as I have said, I feel more could have been made of this scene.

Her account of the Liebestod was beautifully rapturous. At all times she preserved the beauty of tone and moulded Wagner’s phrases intelligently. Kokkos phased out the drama during this scene, gradually focusing attention on the single figure of the transfigured Isolde to close the action.

Having been through a difficult period with his voice, attention inevitably focused on Ben Heppner’s Tristan. I had missed hearing him in London when he cancelled due to illness, so was pleased to catch up with him in the role in Cardiff. Heppner remains a hugely vivid and dramatic performer, one who can be intensely expressive notwithstanding his bulk. His size meant that, inevitably, Tristan had a substantial and heroic presence from the start. His voice has lost its burnished beauty of tone, but retains a massive, granite-like grandeur. The feeling that Heppner was hewing the tenor part out of rock contributed immensely to his performance. Heppner’s Tristan was a warrior who had suffered and would continue to do so, achieving even the rapture of the love duet with difficulty.

His voice took time to warm up and I was worried at first that he might have tuning problems. But things settled down to a feeling of rough-hewn grandeur. In the quieter moments, particularly in the opening of the love duet, Heppner achieved a beauty of tone which matched that of Petersen. Though at the top of his voice there was a certain tightness, a lack of freedom at times. It has to be admitted that he noticeably tired during the performance, with odd notes failing to register properly. But in act 3, he was simply astonishing, achieving a degree of dramatic transfiguration that I would not have believed. Here was a massive character, really suffering.

Susan Bickley’s warm and intensely dramatic Brangäne was one of the strong points of act 1. She formed a strong and believable link with Petersen’s Isolde and Bickley’s vivid performance helped anchor the drama. As a singer, Bickley never ceases to amaze me, she has a wide repertoire and a knack of making a role her own, whether the composer is Handel, Berlioz, Wagner or George Benjamin. Strong Brangänes cannot make a performance of this opera, but with principals as strong as Petersen and Heppner, Bickley was able to contribute to the powerful ensemble feeling of the opera.

Phillip Joll’s Kurwenal was a bluff, old soldier figure; warm and sympathetic with intense regard for Tristan. He provided rock-like support for Heppner’s dramatic power in act 3.

Matthew Best was a committed and intense King Marke. He is one of the best around today and deserved every moment of the long applause he received at the end. But I have to confess that I generally find King Marke a prosy bore and that Best did not quite convince me otherwise. Marke’s long solo at the end of act 2 requires a very, very special touch to pull one’s attention off the love duet. Though Best acquitted himself intelligently, he did not quite manage to pull focus the way he should.

Simon Thorpe was dramatically committed in the role of Melot, Simon Crosby Buttle was nicely mellifluous both as the sailor and the shepherd, with Julian Boyce as the Helmsman.

Lothar Koenigs conducted with sympathy and a good ear for accompanying the singers. He has clearly developed a good relationship with the orchestra and drew a strong performance from them with some good individual solo playing. Koenigs speeds were on the moderate to fast side, but the music never felt rushed. He seemed content to let the drama flow. There weren’t the slow speeds and architectonic feel you get with some conductors, which can be a distinct advantage when it comes to running time.

Any performance of Tristan und Isolde is a landmark and this was anything but a routine revival. The combination of Heppner’s heroic, rough-hewn Tristan with Petersen’s mellifluously intelligent Isolde and Koenigs’ sympathetic accompanying ensured a memorable evening, even if dramatic sparks did not quite fly the way I would have liked.

To a certain extent the virtues of Kokkos’s production are negative, in that it does not get in the way of the music and Kokkos does not try to re-make the work in his own image. But where a company can afford to revive Tristan und Isolde only rarely, and when many of the audience may be seeing it for the first time, this clarity of style can become a positive virtue.

Robert Hugill

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):