BBCSO/Runnicles – 5 February

Tristan und Isolde – Act 2

Isolde – Christine Brewer
Brangäne – Dagmar Pecková
Tristan – John Treleaven
Melot – Jared Holt
König Marke – Peter Rose

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 5 February, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This was the second in the series of three concerts programming the three acts of Tristan und Isolde separately with pieces by other composers influenced by Wagner. The first concert in December gave us a thrilling Act 1, leaving one eagerly anticipating the next instalment. Expectations were largely met by this excellent rendition of Act 2. This act comprises the long love duet of the two title characters as they meet outside at night whilst King Mark and his entourage are out hunting, although, as the lovers have been betrayed by the jealous Melot, they are themselves the quarry.

Runnicles and the orchestra set the scene most evocatively with some extremely fine playing from the woodwind over surging strings as the act opened. Dynamic range throughout this performance was very wide, and only rarely did torrents of sound threaten to overwhelm the singers. It was a shame that the off-stage band, signifying hunting horns in the distance, were placed in the balcony, as those sitting in the circle of the auditorium could hear little else and the auditory effect intended by the composer was denied them. It would surely have been better to have the horns placed behind stage. That quibble apart, the almost chamber music quality that Runnicles obtained from the players in the quieter moments were most impressive in its peaceable sustained intensity. It also afforded the Tristan and Isolde ideal support throughout. Tempi were on the slow side, but with good sweep and pace.

Christine Brewer’s Isolde is most remarkable, and makes one wonder why she is not singing this role on stages around the world. She always seems to have so much power in reserve, a wide range of colours available, and she never makes an ugly sound, despite what Wagner throws at her to sing and to sing against! In the performance of Act 1 she had been proud, angry and imperious. Here she was excited and anxious whilst awaiting her lover, enraptured on his arrival, and then most feminine thereafter. Her diction is excellent, and she really uses the text. I particularly liked her dismissal of Brangäne’s assertion that she was to blame for the clandestine affair by substitution of the potions with her declaration that is was all due to Frau Minne, the love goddess. Her quiet melancholy resolve to follow Tristan into his exile at the end of Act 1 was also very affecting.

Tristan, John Treleaven, also impressed me. To my ears he has the right vocal quality for the role – baritonal, but ringing and heroic at the top of the vocal range. Unusually for a heldentenor, he also has the ability to sing pianissimo. His singing of the opening bars of “O sink’ hernieder, Nacht die Liebe” was magical, and although he was sounding a little tired by the end of the act, his self-loathing and regret of his betrayal of King Mark was dramatically expressed. Things bode well for Act 3.

I must confess to being disappointed by the Brangäne of Dagmar Pecková, a singer whom I usually much admire. She did not seem to have quite the vocal heft required for the part – Brangäne is quite a big sing – and seemed to compensate by being overly vehement and emphatic. Of the principals she was least ’inside’ her role. She also did not have the ability to really float and sustain her off-stage warnings to the lovers, among the most beautiful moments of the score.

Peter Rose as König Marke was more of a known quantity; he has sung the role for the Royal Opera and Welsh National Opera. With this advantage of stage experience he seemed less tied to his score and the more dramatic as a result. Every word of the king’s soliloquy on love and lovelessness, betrayal and honour was audible and beautifully sung. There was no attempt at semi-staging, essential for this rather static piece where the drama lies in the text. However, there were some lighting effects and projections, which did not contribute much to the proceedings. This was a characteristic of some of the operatic concerts mounted by the BBC at the Proms last year and I wish it would stop! [Seconded – Ed.]

Before the interval came a cogent and accomplished performance of Strauss’s Metamorphosen. This made an interesting prelude to the opera, and was presumably programmed to make one aware that it owes much to the string writing of the Wagner. It had an appropriate elegiac quality and was well paced. Ensemble was excellent and the viola players made an outstanding contribution. At the end, each of the 23 players was individually recognised by the conductor.

This concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 18 February (Act 1 scheduled for the 17th); the performance of Act 3, with the world premiere of Tristan – still by William Mival, is in the Barbican the following day and broadcast live.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content