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Violeta Urmana [Photo © Ivan Balderramo]
30 Jul 2013

Prom 19: Wagner — Tristan and Isolde

For those whose Wagnerian thirst had not yet been quenched by three parts of the Ring, the Proms now offered Tristan und Isolde.

Prom 19: Wagner — Tristan and Isolde

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Violeta Urmana [Photo © Ivan Balderramo]


Semyon Bychkov, whom I heard conduct the work in Paris in 2008, once again proved a sure guiding presence, though perhaps without the final ounce or two of delirium that is required to elevate the work to the deserved status of Nietzsche’s opus metaphysicum. The opening Prelude underlined the crucial importance of the bass line, even in - arguably particularly in - this work, straining as it does at the bounds of tonality, without ever quite transgressing them. As Theodor Adorno wrote, in his Versuch über Wagner, ‘‘It is with good reason that the bars in the Tristan score following the words “der furchtbare Trank” stand upon the threshold of new music, in whose first canonical work, Schoenberg’s F-sharp minor Quartet, the words appear: “Take love from me, grant me your happiness!”’ I never felt that quite so much was at stake, but this remained a distinguished reading in a more conventionally dramatic sense. Part of that, perhaps, was to be attributed to the orchestra. Whilst on fine form, the BBC Symphony Orchestra could not, with the best will in the world, be said to have conjured up the tonal, metaphysical depth of Daniel Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin, especially when it came to the all-important string section.

That said, Bychkov worked wonders at times. The orchestral swaying at the beginning of the first time managed to convey just the right mixture of physical and metaphysical turbulence. Sinuous woodwind as Isolde told of her ‘art’ looked forward to the Flowermaidens. The orchestra as a whole, even if it sometimes lacked true depth, still assumed its role as Greek Chorus, or, in Wagner’s later terms, representation of the Will. As Isolde instructed Kurwenal to have Tristan come to her, there was a true sense of tragic inevitability both from orchestra and singer. Bychkov, here and elsewhere, understood and communicated both musical structure and its interaction with the external ‘drama’. (In this of all Wagner’s works, the drama lies more in the orchestra than anywhere else; indeed, more than once, I found myself thinking how much I should love to hear him conduct Schoenberg’s avowedly post­­-Tristan symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisande. The stillness of Hell, as much as Nietzsche’s ‘voluptuousness’, truly registered as Isolde drank the potion; moreover, the shimmering sound Bychkov drew from the BBC SO violins had them play to a level I have rarely heard - certainly not under their recently-departed absentee conductor.

The Prelude to Act II was unusually fleet, but not harried: probably wise given that one was not dealing with the traditional ‘dark’ German sound of an orchestra such as Barenboim’s Staatskapelle. Offstage brass, conducted by Andrew Griffiths, were excellent. Again, the BBC SO often surpassed itself, its scream at the opening of the second scene - responding to Isolde’s ‘Tristan - Geliebter!’ - offering a somewhat embarrassing contrast with the puny sounds heard from Tristan himself. Woodwind again excelled, at times, for instance after Isolde’s ‘O eitler Tagesknecht!’, evoking Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. As Tristan - just about - harangued the spite and envy of day, we heard an apt orchestral sardonicism, mid-way between Loge and Schoenberg. (I thought in particular of the First Chamber Symphony.) And the deadly slowing of the heartbeat - Karajan truly worried about this Act II music, fearing it might literally take the lives of conductors - was well conveyed. I liked the idea - and practice - of having the Shepherd’s English horn solo piped from above, as if from the ramparts. The spotlighting of the (very good) soloist put me in mind of Stockhausen’s later practice of blurring the boundaries between instruments and ‘characters’. If the level of orchestral playing was not so impressive during much of the third act, most obviously earlier on, that may have been part of a doomed attempt to enable Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan to be heard. There was, though, also a problem with balance at times, the brass tending to overpower in a way never heard in Barenboim’s Ring performances. Dramatic urgency was regained, however, after Tristan’s death.

Violeta Urmana opened in somewhat shrill fashion, her words often indistinct. She improved quickly, though, and as early as the second scene, was both more sensitive in terms of tonal variegation and far more comprehensible. There were times, especially during the first act - for instance, on the ‘preis’ of ‘mit ihr gab er es pries!’ - when her climaxes were a little too conventionally operatic, but hers remained a committed performance. She had no difficulty in riding the orchestral wave in her transfiguration: impressive, if not necessarily moving. Mihoko Fujimura excelled as Brangäne; indeed, it seems to be more her role than Kundry. There was true musical satisfaction to be gained from the ‘rightness’ of her phrasing, as well as dramatic truth from the honesty of her character portrayal. Her second-act Watch was radiant, euphonious, somehow sounding as if from a greater distance than the RAH organ, as if carried to us by an opportune, clement breeze. Andrew Staples put in excellent performances as both the Shepherd and the Young Sailor. The latter role, sung from above, was very nicely shaded, and with diction of an excellence that put many other cast members to shame. As Shepherd, his voice was audibly, somewhat awkwardly, more virile than that of the lamentable Tristan.

Robert Dean Smith was, alas, a grave disappointment as Tristan. From his ‘Fragt die Sitte!’ to Isolde, matter of fact in the wrong way, there was little dramatic involvement to be gleaned. He often sounded more like Isolde’s grandfather, about to expire, even in the first act, than her lover. The orchestra, as guided by Bychkov, often compensated for him, but it should not have had to do so.. When Tristan sang that he and Isolde were ‘ungetrennt’ (undivided), the division was all too glaringly apparent. It was not just that he lacked charisma and volume, though he certainly did, but that his performance throughout seemed entirely unaware of the deadly eroticism in which it should have been soaked; he often sounded more like an attempt, a couple of sizes too small, at Beckmesser, than Tristan. Boaz Daniel proved an ardent Kurwenal, his ‘Heil Tristan!’ a proper reminder of a doomed attempt to return to the chivalric mores of Lohengrin, of the day. David Wilson-Johnson’s Melot was unpleasantly blustering, the only other real disappointment in the cast. Kwangchul Youn gave an excellent performance too. I have often found him a little dull in the past, but here his tenderness and passion showed King Marke to be a true human being, not a mere saint. Had I been Isolde, I should certainly have stuck with him on this occasion.

The combined male forces of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra made for a goodlier crew than I can recall, a veritable male voice choir. There was no compromise between heft and diction; the former quality had the excellent consequence of already emphasising the threatening nature of the external, phenomenal world of the day. If not necessarily a Tristan for the ages, then, there remained much to admire.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Tristan: Robert Dean Smith; Isolde: Violeta Urmana; King Marke: Kwangchul Youn; Kurwenal: Boaz Daniel; Brangäne: Mihoko Fujimura; Melot: David Wilson-Johnson: Steersman: Edward Price: Young Sailor/Shepherd: Andrew Staphes. BBC Singers/BBC Symphony Chours (chorus master: Stephen Jackson)/BBC Symphony Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov. Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 27 July 2013.

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