Tristan und Isolde – opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer [sung in German with English surtitles]
Tristan – Neal Cooper
Isolde – Cara McHardy
Brangäne – Harriet Williams
Kurwenal – Simon Thorpe
King Marke – Simon Wilding
Melot – Ben Thapa
Young Sailor/Shepherd – Ben Thapa
Helmsman – Henry Wright
London Opera Company Orchestra & Chorus
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 29 October, 2022
Venue: St John’s Smith Square, London
Once in a while a performance of Tristan und Isolde comes your way that knocks you for six – for me, the Yannis Kokkos staging in Glasgow in the 1990s, Longborough’s recent staging with Lee Bissett and Peter Wedd, and now this concert semi-staging from London Opera Company, a new project launched in 2020 in the wake of Covid with a chamber version of Tristan, followed by Die Walküre last year and Act Three of Siegfried earlier this year, all under the guidance of Peter Selwyn.
This performance at St John’s Smith Square was LOC’s first with full orchestra, a mix of professional, student and amateur players, plus an eleven-strong male chorus.
Yes, some of it was rough round the edges, with a semi-staging that had the cast both on and off the hook with some awkward movements across the platform and avoiding music-stands, but all Wagner’s crucial moments – the lovers’ drinking of the death/love potion, Isolde’s abandoned evocation of Frau Minne, the love duet, and a devastating mad scene from Tristan – held up magnificently. There were some bumps from the orchestra to begin with, but under Selwyn’s authoritative and attentive conducting, the playing just got better and better, reaching that blissful Tristan point of musical independence where it’s ambiguous whether the characters or the players are in the ascendant, while Wagner’s thematic web took on a nuanced life of its own, which is quite an accomplishment.
And there was not a weak link in the cast. As anchors to the title roles, Simon Thorpe’s Kurvenal was everything you could want, bluff, touching and secure, and Harriet Williams’s Brangäne was beautifully paced and consistently full of insights, subtly in control in the Act One dialogue with Isolde, then singing from the St John’s gallery her ‘Hab’ Acht’ warnings during the love duet to ravishing effect, scaled perfectly to the layout of the space (along with an impressive chorus of off-stage horns). Simon Thorpe had the vocal size, fluency and tonal beauty for King Marke’s solo, movingly sung and a powerful reminder of the skill with which, throughout the opera, Wagner switches between the lovers’ hopelessly selfish passion and the chaos it causes. Ben Thapa was a lethal Melot, and, standing in as the Shepherd, Thapa sang ‘Öd’ und leer das Meer’ as one of the saddest things I’ve heard.
At first I found Cara McHardy’s soprano a bit wiry and weightless for Isolde, but by the time she got her hands on the fatal potion, her singing gathered in sweetness. As a singer she has a formidable presence, with a consistent stamina and command, and fearless in the demands of the Liebestod, in which Isolde’s potent mix of will, vulnerability and tenderness came across clearly. Neal Cooper – he did a memorable and emergency upgrade from Melot to Tristan during the Glyndebourne Prom in 2017 – may not have a conventionally sweet tenor, but in other respects he has the Heldentenor goods in terms of penetration and intensity, and here his voice radiated Tristan’s conflicted character and urgent sensuality. He also paced himself very well, veiling the baritone end of his voice for a marvelously sustained love duet, and then in Act Three going on to give a searing, truly distressing account of Tristan’s madness and death, completely abandoned and overwhelming. The lovers sang the duet spaced as far as possible from each other, then thankfully came together at ‘Sinkt hernieder’, and the result was magic. It was a remarkable evening.