Tristan und Isolde – Handlung in three acts to a libretto by the composer, after the verse romance Tristan by Gottfried von Straßburg [sung in German with English surtitles]
Isolde – Violeta Urmana
Brangäne – Anne Sofie von Otter
Tristan – Gary Lehman
King Marke – Matthew Best
Kurwenal – Jukka Rasilainen
Melot – Stephen Gadd
Shepherd, Sailor – Joshua Ellicott
Helmsman – Darren Jeffery
Bill Viola – Visual artist
Peter Sellars – Artistic collaborator
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 26 September, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The Philharmonia Orchestra, under its Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser Esa-Pekka Salonen, opened its 2010-11 season with this musically awesome performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. This was not a normal concert performance, however: there was a video projection (by the American video-artist Bill Viola) to accompany the music which added very little and often detracted from the music. Viola embarked on what he calls “The Tristan Project” back in 2004, at the invitation of Peter Sellars. It was first performed at the Disney Hall in Los Angeles over three evenings (one act at a time), then complete at l’Opéra Bastille in Paris in April and November 2005. The video was shown in London sans music in June to September 2006 at the Haunch of Venison Gallery, and St Olave’s College, London. There have been other performances, including three before this (Lucerne, Dortmund and Birmingham) with Salonen and the Philharmonia.
The theme of the video accompaniment was fairly obvious: during Act One the idea was preparation and purification for the love to follow; Act Two explored searching for answers; finally there was the preparation for death and the ascent to what Viola called “a realm beyond the polarities of male and female, birth and death, light and darkness, beginning and end” – all this used his customary extreme slow-motion, and with fire juxtaposed with water. Whilst the themes were evident the images were often boring and, more frustratingly, incredibly distracting: too often one was trying to decipher exactly what an image was for, which meant that concentration on the performance (and the surtitles) was sacrificed. With a musical performance this good, this was a pity.
To accommodate the large projection screen – I assume – the orchestra was seated without risers: a most-welcome arrangement in any event. The benefits of this were apparent throughout the evening: the orchestra’s glorious strings balanced against the rest of the orchestra exquisitely – though the lack of antiphonal violins in this music was bewildering – and timpani that enveloped the orchestra rather than puncturing through. Throughout, the Philharmonia was marvellous: the lush violins’ sound frequently ached emotion; phenomenal cor anglais-playing from Jill Crowther gave her Act Three contributions unbearable and rarely-heard pathos; and cellos and double basses contributed to a wider and secure foundation to the music. Ear-catching, too, was Salonen’s command of the score: he knew exactly what he wanted, and his care with episodes such as the Preludes, or the driving rhythms that dominate elsewhere, conjured a greater pictorial vision of the story than Viola’s video could ever accomplish.
The response of the singers was similarly impressive, and often startlingly so. As Isolde, Violeta Urmana gave an impassioned account, and her range was secure, ringing out across the auditorium with pin-point exactitude. Conveying the character of Isolde through her voice was where she was triumphant: the sense of Isolde being an angry caged animal in Act One was particularly effective, and the transformation of her to a zealous and desperate lover in Act Three was utterly compelling.
The Tristan of Gary Lehman reciprocated the passion of Urmana’s Isolde heroically. His need for Isolde as he died was palpable, and the long monologues were effectively communicated: the lengthy Act Three outpourings left an indelible impression. What a treat Anne Sophie von Otter proved to be, too. Frequently, Brangäne can descend into a hectoring and boring spinsterish part, but von Otter, in powerful voice, was sympathetic. The King Marke of Matthew Best was immediately striking, for the firmness in his tone during Act One, to the softening that took place later on: a commanding account indeed.
To compete with such forceful performances, and to go further and make an impression with a smaller part such as Kurwenal, showed what a consummate artist Jukka Rasilainen is. Similarly, Stephen Gadd gave the murderous Melot a biting visceral nature. The minor parts of the young sailor and shepherd (taken by Joshua Ellicott) and the helmsman (Darren Jeffery) rang out with crystal clarity from the sides and back of the auditorium – there were many occasions where singers, and the superb Philharmonia Voices as the sailors, were placed strategically about the Hall.
In the Philharmonia’s exploration of the glorious soundworld of Wagner what was heard was nothing short of revelatory. The artists involved, whose craftsmanship created this most universal of experiences, richly deserved the resulting ovation.