EIF 8: Shimmering Orchestral Playing in WNO’s Tristan und Isolde

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (concert performance)Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 15.8.2012 (SRT)

Isolde: Jennifer Wilson
Brangäne: Susan Bickley
Tristan:  Ben Heppner
Kurwenal: Philip Joll
King Marke: Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Melot: S imon Thorpe
Shepherd/Young Sailor: Simon Crosby
Buttle Steersman:  Julian Boyce

In a terrible stroke of bad luck, last night’s main festival concert of Russian music with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic had to be cancelled due to a freak power cut at the Usher Hall. No such problems tonight, thankfully, though if ever a work of music could be associated with darkness, then it’s surely Tristan!

All three of Britain’s main provincial opera companies are featuring in this year’s festival: Opera North brought The Makropolus Case at the start of the week and Scottish Opera finish the festival showcasing some new works made in Scotland. Welsh National Opera is unique among them in bringing a concert version, and even more so in that this is a work they have just performed on stage, albeit with a slightly different cast. I saw the recent WNO staging when it went on tour to the Birmingham Hippodrome. (See here for our review of the Cardiff opening).

The finest thing about it was the playing of the WNO orchestra, and the same was true in Edinburgh. Liberated from the pit, the orchestra sounded fantastic, repeatedly bringing to light every glittering, shimmering detail of Wagner’s great score. Right from the beginning of the prelude the warmth and richness of the string sound was a thing to marvel at, the cellos conjuring up an extraordinary mellow tone at the first appearance of the “gaze” theme. The winds were delicate and at times luminescent, and the brass spine tingling, the trombones and tubas evoking infinite emptiness when Tristan mentions the land of night. This is a truly extraordinary orchestra whose recent work in Wagner has been magnificent, and I can’t wait to hear them in Lohengrin next summer. Lothar Koenigs’ direction was solid, allowing the music plenty of room to breathe, but he didn’t always give the music much guidance, and his pacing of the love duet felt rather rushed in places.

The main change from the Cardiff/Birmingham cast is the new addition of Jennifer Wilson as Isolde. I found her Brünnhilde in the Valencia Ring very impressive, but hearing her in the flesh I found her a little unfocused. Hers is an undeniably big voice and she was one of the few singers who could crest the wave of the orchestral sound, but her instrument lacks subtlety at times, with a slight tendency to gulp the big moments. The curse in Act 1 came and went without much moment and, fine as was her singing of the Liebestod, she had a tendency to hurl herself at the top notes rather than taking them in her stride.

Ben Heppner’s controversial tenor is difficult to come to a judgement on because he was so darn variable! A few years ago his voice was on the rocks, and I was surprised to see that he was still being engaged as Tristan. He didn’t make a good impression on me in Birmingham, but my low expectations were confounded during tonight’s first act, where he sounded secure and tuneful, and he even seemed to have recaptured some of the golden tone that first made him in such great demand. Problems set in during the second act, however: his stamina began to fail so that he lacked power and was frequently inaudible over the orchestra, and his pitching began to slip badly towards the end of the love duet. I was dreading the monologues of the third act, but he found extra reserves from somewhere and managed to sing (mostly) in tune, though again his voice lacked the power to contend effectively with the orchestra. Wagner lovers will continue to keep their eye on Heppner, thought it’s difficult to contradict the feeling that his best days are far behind him.

Not so Susan Bickley, a great singing actress whose Brangäne was fantastic, both on stage and in concert. Her ripe mezzo is used with fantastic clarity and paints each scene most effectively. Her Act 2 warnings float mellifluously and she is a worthy partner for this Isolde. Simon Crosby Buttle did a good turn as both Shepherd and Sailor, and Simon Thorpe’s Melot was strong and effective. Philip Joll’s Kurwenal, however, was shouty and blunt, often lacking pitch and sounding too gravelly for comfort. Sadly Matthew Best, an outstanding King Marke in Birmingham whose stock is still very high at the Edinburgh Festival after his outstanding Wotan in the 2000-2003 Ring cycle, had to withdraw from this evening’s concert. Fair play to Jan-Hendrik Rootering for stepping in, but he too is a singer whose best days are behind him, his pitching far too insecure in his Act 2 monologue, though things improved for his brief interjections in the opera’s final scene.

A mixed evening, then, but most of my reservations were overcome by the delight of hearing this extraordinary score held up to the light by such a wonderful crowd of Wagnerian orchestral musicians. I think Koenigs’ Wagner remains a work in progress, but with a Rolls Royce band like this his trajectory is bound to be upwards.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 2nd September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

Simon Thompson