Tristan und Isolde – Music-drama in three acts to a libretto by the composer [sung in German with English surtitles]
Sailor / Herdsman – Ben Johnson
Kurwenal – Brett Polegato
Tristan – Stephen Gould
Melot – Benedict Nelson
König Marke – Matthew Best
Men of the CBSO Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Rian Evans
Reviewed: 3 March, 2012
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
This was a young man’s Tristan und Isolde, full of passion and urgency. Yet, even though this was Andris Nelsons’s first time conducting the work, his avowed commitment to Wagner, his seemingly natural affinity for the music and his experience of Bayreuth, gave this an altogether greater depth than any normal debutant. With a cast of singers that would be the envy of many an opera house, this performance had an implicit and constantly unfolding drama. One of the undoubted benefits of a concert setting is the super-audibility of the musical substrata, with all its pointers to feelings and psychology; while, in terms of clarity of detail, both the acoustic and architecture of Symphony Hall – as well as Nelsons’s instinct for using it – contributed to something deeply satisfying.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra gave us a wonderfully lucid ‘Prelude’, with the celebrated Tristan chord articulated so simply, though not clinically, as though deliberately laying bare from the outset the protagonists’ hearts. Nelsons was more than happy to take his time – there were moments when one was reminded of Reginald Goodall’s celebrated interpretation with Welsh National Opera – before unleashing the great surges of emotion, apparently spontaneous yet clearly strategically plotted.
Lulled by the sense of a long voyage underway, the aural focus was nevertheless suddenly changed with the appearance of Ben Johnson, as the sailor on lookout, high in front of the Symphony Hall organ: we were indeed out at sea. It would be all hands on deck with the men of the CBSO Chorus in the choir-stalls, and the brass players were deployed with similarly imaginative use of levels, initially in front of the organ, and later most evocatively as though through mists off stage. These simple effects helped conjure an atmosphere as evocative as any high-budget staging.
Any performance of this opera stands or falls on its casting of the title-roles and the CBSO’s were pretty well anchored. As Tristan, Stephen Gould’s prime virtue was his powerhouse heldentenor, never less than robust, relieving the listener of any doubt that this was a voice for the duration. But, gratifying as it is to feel that a singer has the lung-power for Wagner’s lengthy phrases and the volume to ride over the orchestra, Gould’s heft was sometimes overbearing, not affecting enough, and Nelsons’s emotional acuity couldn’t quite compensate.
Lioba Braun by contrast was most musical, portraying an Isolde who was totally credible. Spirited and gutsy in the first Act, the body language conveying a great deal without any resort to histrionics, her voice carried warmth and humanity to embody Isolde’s healing gift. In Act Two, the effects of the love-potion were manifest in the sound: Braun produced the most meltingly beautiful tone in the middle of range – a reminder that it was the mezzo role of Brangäne that Braun sang very successfully in the 1990s – but she negotiated the upper range with impunity, only occasionally harsh at the top under duress.
Christianne Stotijn was Brangäne, carefully characterised, with lovely inflections in the voice that chimed with the dilemma in which she is after all instrumental in creating. Matthew Best’s König Marke was very fine indeed, resonant with a noble dignity and ultimately great compassion. The bigger surprise was the Kurwenal of Brett Polegato, whose lyric baritone carried magnificently and who had considerable presence. Benedict Nelson’s Melot had plenty of the dark arts.
Nelsons’s control was as dynamic as ever: the veiled colours with which he painted the tone, the clarity of details, the force with which the great climaxes were built, albeit of necessity unfulfilled, all demonstrated the a sure touch. Ralph van Daal’s cor anglais solos deserves special mention, always well-focused, and particularly beautifully when playing off-stage in Act Three. In the ‘Liebestod’ Braun realised all that is sublime and transcendent in the score, still sounding remarkably fresh and poised. Her ability to shape the phrasing ensured an expressive immediacy both engaging and moving. It set the seal on a memorable evening.