WNO’s Tristan and Isolde was Sound but Lacking in Impulse

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wagner,  Tristan und Isolde: Soloists. Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera,  Lothar Koenigs (conductor),  Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 19.5.2012. (LRK)

Sailor – Simon Crosby Buttle
Helmsman – Julian Boyce
TristanBen Heppner
IsoldeAnn Petersen
BrangaeneSusan Bickley
KurwenalPhillip Joll
King Marke – Matthew Best
MelotSimon Thorpe
Shepherd – Simon Crosby Buttle

Conductor  – Lothar Koenigs
Original Director and Designer – Yannis Kokkos
Revival Director –  Peter Watson
Original Lighting Designer –  Guido Levi
Revival Lighting Realisations  –  Paul Woodfield
Fight Director  – Kevin McCurdy

WNO Tristan and Isolde 2012 Cast – Ben Heppner (Tristan) Ann Petersen (Isolde) Credit David Massey

Traditionalist Wagnerians need fear nothing from this revival. First performed in 1993, its designs for sets and costumes conceived by the production’s Director are straightforward, elegant and unfussy. Better still,  for those who dislike the excesses of post – postmodernism, the setting allows the text to tell its own story without superimposed conceptual aids.   Neither  blood – transfusion bags containing the potions (Oslo 2012) nor chess boards and fencing champions (Budapest 2011) are to be found here. Instead, what you see here is exactly what you get for once, freeing the audience from worrying about ‘what it all means’ and allowing concentration on the orchestra and the singing. It’s a curiously refreshing experience although not one that’s altogether problem-free.

Generally speaking the music reaches the standards set by WNO at its best. Danish soprano Ann Petersen is the production’s star by some margin and with an already established profile in Wagner and Strauss, she seems set for an enduring and distinguished career. Hers is not a full-blown dramatic soprano voice:  she sings a mix of lyric and dramatic roles and it will be interesting to watch the choices she makes in the future, but there is an easy flexibility to her sound throughout its whole compass that adds enormously to the intrinsic beauty of her singing. She acts well too and provided a fine foil to Ben Heppner throughout the whole performance.

As to Heppner himself, it was a real pleasure to hear him return to his earlier form as a Wagner singer. His is, it goes almost without saying, a very fine voice, but sadly this was not wholly apparent until the third act. Until then he was having problems with tuning and was needing to correct himself frequently. Unusually (because most people seem to be worn out by Act 3) Heppner came into his own at a point when most tenors are cracking under the strain. I wonder if he had only just arrived in Britain and was tired from his journey.

Curiously enough, the same phenomenon manifested in the Kurwenal of Phillip Joll. After a very uneasy first and second act he too came into his own in Act 3. Where had they both been? one wondered. Didn’t the air of Ireland or Cornwall suit them? Sudden onset vocal security (SOVS) showed him to be the brilliant singer that he really is and, as with Heppner, redeemed the whole performance.

Matthew Best as King Mark was on form from the outset and gave a suitably engaging performance of this depressed but  kindly monarch, while Susan Bickley’s Brangaene was empathic and  concerned but not vocally very engaging. Simon Crossley Buttle as both sailor and shepherd was sympathetic and well sung, and Julian Boyce as the helmsman was fine.

The normally outstanding chorus seemed curiously disengaged during Act 1, both in terms of acting and singing. They picked up vocally in Act 2, but the acting remained uncertain and even bemused at times.

In fact, for the entire cast all of the acting seemed to be somewhat less than ensemble. I got the impression that there hadn’t been a lot of rehearsal (nothing unusual there, of course) since everyone appeared to be projecting  their own version of events: Isolde was warm; Tristan was static; Melot appeared bewildered by finding himself with a weapon. Tristan had difficulty flinging his coat over Isolde. Isolde had trouble taking her cloak off in the final act making me wonder what else she was about to remove – but maybe this was simply modern production trauma (MPT). The fights were pointlessly bad; waving a sword about quarter – heartedly isn’t actually what one wants from a warrior.

There were also some strange longueurs  here and there which might well have been due to the pace at which Lothar Koenigs took some aspects of the score. The result was an abiding sense of a lack of impulse  which, while doubtless suiting many listeners, gave me rather too much time to reflect on the plot. I have been listening to this work since I was 14 and only on Saturday did it occur to me that what we had before us was a failed gothic novel, which bore a curious relation to  Thomas Love Peacock’s fine satire Nightmare Abbey  rather than an extended demonstration of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. I fully realise that I’ll probably be written off as  simple-minded for entertaining that thought but as the performance progressed, I became more and more seized with the notion  that Wagner had written something belonging more to the vampire genre than anything else. If only I had been able to work out just who was sucking whose blood… But yes, I began to think that Tristan is the Celtic Twilight….

Beyond  all this tongue-in-cheek tosh though, it’s fair to say that this intrinsically sound  and worthwhile production needed much firmer stage direction than was apparent on the opening night to reveal its true merits.  Let’s hope it receives that in the performances scheduled for May 26th, June 2nd and June 16th in Cardiff and Birmingham.

Lyn Kenny