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

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

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):