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

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Monsters and Marriage at the Aix Festival

Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

Richard Strauss: Arabella

I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.

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):