Winning Wagner – Tristan Act 3 (19 Feb)

Tristan – still [BBC commission: world première]
Tristan und Isolde – Act 3

Isolde – Christine Brewer
Brangäne – Dagmar Pecková
Tristan – John Treleaven
Melot – Jared Holt
König Marke – Peter Rose
Young Shepherd – Eugene Ginty
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
Steersman – Jonathan Lemalu

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 19 February, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

And so, after two months, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s survey of Wagner’s most romantic opera, Tristan und Isolde, comes to its glorious close. You may cavil at splitting the acts up, but there were great advantages in giving time to each act on their own.

For those (like myself) who find much of Wagner – including a lot of the actual music – difficult to accept either as being anything but a seriously deranged backwater in the development of music or as dangerously egocentric claptrap, anything to alleviate a full evening of Wagner is to be welcomed. But in any case, the story of Tristan and Isolde suggests more than just an interval of 30 minutes between acts. The close of Act 1, Isolde’s arrival in Cornwall, in Tristan’s care, delivered to King Mark at the end of Act 1, suggests a few weeks should pass before we see Act 2’s nocturnal meeting and eventual discovery of the lovers. A further fortnight is a believable elapse to have allowed Kurwenal move the wounded Tristan from Cornwall to Brittany, and send for Isolde who is the only one who can save him.

In essence then, this split version of Tristan und Isolde was only following Zubin Mehta’s real-time version of Tosca as a televisual event or, indeed, the current TV hit, 24 (now in its second series, each episode lasting one hour – or as much of an hour as American advertising schedules will allow – of a single day). A further advantage is of course a practical one, that of allowing performers fresh assaults on each act, rather than over-extending themselves. With three of the cast singing the work for the first time – Christine Brewer, Dagmar Pecková and Boaz Daniel – this is probably the ideal way to approach it. My one regret is that it is not a warm up for a complete performance at this year’s Proms, but at least Radio 3 listeners were able to hear the Acts on consecutive evenings, ending in the live broadcast of Act 3.

The final intriguing plus-point was the chance to programme interesting works as a preface to each act. If the first choice – Debussy’s fragments from Le martyre de St Sébastien – had been negated for me by the wholly selfish page-turning of the score by a best unnamed veteran music commentator, the second – Strauss’s Metamorphosen – had come across in a supremely well-balanced performance, which Runnicles conducted objectively, with no hint at over-egging the late romanticism. Quite deserved was his request for each of the 23 players to take an individual bow.

In this final concert we were presented with a world première, specially composed with Tristan in mind. William Mival has created an extended slow movement built from splinters of Tristan und Isolde, mainly Act 2, although his self-penned note throws a massive red-herring into the mix, referring to a possibly spurious string quartet which Wagner is said to have penned shortly before the première of Tristan. While references to the Act 2 love duet are there, the music seems to be more akin to Mahler – the use of harp suggests the Fifth Symphony’s ’Adagietto’, but much more pertinent to me was the adumbration at the start that is like the opening of the Ninth, with distant horn calls; the ending seems to revisit the rapt slow movement of the Sixth. I wondered if, in its discursiveness, one could subtitle it “100 players in search of a full cadence”, but I was impressed with Mival’s assured orchestral touches, and was quite happy to surrender to its sumptuous waves of sound. It didn’t feel particularly like a piece from this century – only at the end did brass get to grips with more than late-romantic crunching harmonies – but there is no reason why it necessarily should. More scurrilously, if one takes the tile as being a Barbara Wodehouse admonition from Isolde to her lover, we can perhaps look forward to two sequels: “Tristan – walkies” and “Tristan – sit”.

What can I add to Tim Ball or Alex Campbell’s astute reviews for Acts 1 and 2? Suffice to say that the qualities highlighted in each of those continued into Act 3, and two quibbles (Pecková’s voice not carrying and the inappropriate siting of the off-stage band) where rectified here. Indeed, the cor anglais playing of Celia Craig was utterly outstanding, as was the later distinctive call of Timothy Holmes’s tárogató.John Treleaven – how apt that he is Cornish! – was affecting as the wounded Tristan, pure in intonation and galvanised at the music to Isolde’s entrance, benefiting from the concert setting which negated any director’s instruction to sing lying or sitting. Christine Brewer remained on top form, an intelligent singer who understands the words and aids the audience’s understanding through immaculate diction and appropriate emotion. With equally secure contributions from Dagmar Pecková (Brangäne in Act 3 does not have to cut through massive orchestration), Boaz Daniel and Peter Rose, let alone the smaller parts, this was a triumph.

Just a week after the Olivier Awards, when – all too predictably – Pappano was lauded simply for having arrived at Covent Garden, it would be nice to think that the opera panel for next year will cast their minds back long enough to remember this barn-storming, world-beating performance, as I suspect there will be little, operatically, to rival it this year.Perhaps the BBC would like to follow the LSO’s example and start releasing superlative performances such as this on a budget price label (with – in this case – the three first halves as a bonus disc)?Serendipitously, perhaps, the next BBC Symphony Orchestra concert at the Barbican Hall, on 10 March, includes another Act 3 – this time to Puccini’s Turandot, in the British première of Berio’s completion, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Unmissable.

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