Edinburgh International Festival – Bamberg Symphony/Nott (2)

Tristan und Isolde [concert performance]

Isolde – Christine Brewer
Brangaene – Jane Irwin
Tristan – Christian Franz
Kurwenal – Juha Uusitalo
König Marke – John Relyea
Melot – D’Arcy Bleiker
Shepherd – Andrew Kennedy
Young Sailor – Andrew Kennedy

Edinburgh Festival Chorus

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 30 August, 2005
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

This sell-out concert performance was one of the eagerly anticipated events of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, and one that for most of those present will have more than met expectations.

Firstly there was the opportunity to see Jonathan Nott and his excellent Bamberg Symphony tackle a big operatic work. This they did with some panache. Nott’s pacing of the drama was on the fast side; he is certainly not one to linger or to wallow indulgently. Maybe some of the tempos were too fleet in some of the most ecstatic moments of the score; the final section of the lovers’ big duet in the second act and even the closing pages of the first act needed just a little more space. But what playing the Bamberg Symphony produced. The sound was full but not over-lush, and the dynamic range was impressive and rarely did the singers appear to have to force over the orchestral tumult.

Indeed, the feeling of the vocal lines being very much part of the orchestral texture was evident throughout and this allowed the singers to make much of the text and to produce beautiful tone in a way seldom encountered in the opera house. Some of the solo playing was superb – particularly the mournful cor anglais solos of Act Three, and some of the cello passages also. The brass was also very well disciplined – although the off-stage brass of the Act Two hunt was a little bass-dominant; the upper parts of the ensemble did not register as they might. The players certainly deserved their ovations at the end.

And so did the singers. “Tristan und Isolde” rarely gets such even casting as it had on this occasion, with all the principal roles given first-rate interpretations. Towering above all was Christine Brewer’s Isolde – surely one of the best around today. This must be one of the most beautiful-sounding Isoldes – powerful when needed, yet tender or elegiac as the drama demanded. Diction was superb, and there were many telling interpretative details – notably in the Act One passages where she and Tristan prepare to drink atonement together. Brewer had already demonstrated many of these qualities when she sang separate concert performances of each Act with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Donald Runnicles in 2003/4, but her stamina and freshness throughout this entire evening were remarkable – and crowned by her rapturous ‘Liebestod’.

In comparison Christian Franz’s Tristan was slightly less remarkable. He obviously has much stage experience of the role as was evident by his rather more forthright and dramatic response to the text – again there was much interpretative insight. I particularly liked his depiction of Tristan’s reverie as we first meet his character. He also had the stamina for the role, no doubt aided by the sympathetic conductor. If at forte his voice is rather insistent at times, he can sing quietly and some of his piano singing was very beautiful indeed. His was a powerful delirium too, and he rose fully to the challenge of Act Three.

Jane Irwin was a properly anxious Brangaene; her stage experience in the role paying dividends. Her German was exemplary. The Act Two warnings to the lovers were beautifully and luxuriously voiced from behind the orchestra, and her interplay with Brewer’s Isolde was fine – these voices blend yet contrast very well. Sturdy Kurwenal was given a sturdy performance by the big-voiced and imposing Juha Uusitalo, and John Relyea’s equally big-voiced König Marke certainly made an impression. Indeed, his long narration felt shorter than it has ever done in my experience – largely because his exemplary diction allowed one to easily follow the text in the programme. It was beautifully sung in a rich resonant bass.

In the smaller roles Andrew Kennedy voiced the young sailor’s air most mellifluously – as one might expect from a recent Cardiff Singer Lieder prize-winner! D’Arcy Bleiker made what he could of the small but important role of Melot – though it was puzzling that on both of his appearances he was denied both a chair and a music stand (leaving just him and Christine Brewer’s Isolde standing at the end). Indeed the other puzzling aspect of the evening was the general lack of light on the protagonists’ faces (and in the auditorium to enable one to read the text without eyestrain). No problem with the lighting of the men of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus who were seated in the organ gallery, nor with their lusty singing either!

I expect this will become a performance of legend in the Festival’s long catalogue of such events and that many will remember this encounter with Brewer’s complete Isolde for many a year.

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