United Kingdom Prom 19.Wagner,Tristan and Isolde: Soloists, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 27.7.13 (RB)
Tristan: Robert Dean Smith
Isolde: Violeta Urmana
King Mark: Kwangchul Youn
Kurwenal: Boaz Daniel
Brangäne: Mihoko Fujimura
Melot: David Wilson-Johnson
Steersman: Edward Price Young Sailor/Shepherd Andrew Staples
Production Adviser: Daniel Dooner
Wagner interrupted his composition of The Ring immediately after Siegfried to compose Tristan and Isolde so there was some justification to programming this opera between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. With its extraordinary chromatic harmonies, its heady eroticism and infusion of Schopenhauerian philosophy (conflating love, death and the renunciation of desire) it serves up a potent cocktail of drama, romance and tragedy.
Wagner insisted that each of his operas represented a Gesamtkunstwerk or total art form so the words, drama, storytelling, scenery, direction and layout of the auditorium were all important and needed to be synthesised with the music. With the Royal Albert there are obvious limitations on what one can do in a semi-staged production but it is possible to introduce dramatic effects through lighting, props and the acting of the main characters. The fact that the orchestra is immediately behind the singers rather than below them presents a further complication as the soloists need to sing against big orchestral forces at various points.
Daniel Dooner did a reasonably good job in using the full resources of the Royal Albert Hall to depict the unfolding dramatic events. Lighting changes at the back depicted the various scene changes, the young sailor sang from off stage at the beginning, Brangäne shouted down warnings from the organ loft in Act 2 and the cor anglais soloist played just behind the audience in Act 3. Mihoko Fujimura and Boaz Daniel acted their parts well but the acting from other cast members was variable and Violeta Urmana was very static and wooden, particularly in Act 1 where she tended just to stand to deliver her monologues at the required point. There were no props or costumes: given the significance of Der Todestrank, it was disappointing to see no cup on stage and the scene where Isolde offered the fateful cup to Tristan did not have the full range of dramatic tension one might expect.
Violeta Urmana started her career as a mezzo-soprano and she has the ability to add rich layers of colour to her vocal roles. Isolde is an exceptionally demanding vocal part (Schwarzkopf struggled with it) and Urmana gave us some impassioned and voluptuous singing, particularly in the Act 2 love duet and in the final Liebestod where she wrung every ounce of heartache and rapture from this most famous of monologues. However, in Act 1 some of the diction was unclear and some of the long vocal lines uneven particularly in the upper register. Robert Dean Smith has sung Tristan at Bayreuth and there is a wonderful lustre and sensuality to his voice. He brought a magical and tender quality to the Act 2 love duet and he captured Tristan’s delirium well at the beginning of Act 3. Elsewhere, however, he was drowned out by Bychkov and the BBC SO and his voice did not have the vocal projection or resonance to fill the Royal Albert Hall.
This was the Proms debut for Mihoko Fujimura, Boaz Daniel and Kwangchul Youn and they all acquitted themselves very well. Fujimura was magnificent in the role of Brangäne and she showed us a wonderfully rich and resonant mezzo voice perfectly blended throughout the vocal range. Her acting was very compelling on stage and her diction was also exceptionally clear even at points when she had to sing against large orchestral forces. Daniel captured the heroic ardour of Kurwenal in the early scenes while the fluctuating emotional states in the final act were depicted well. Youn has a wonderfully rich and resonant bass voice which was admirably clear and filled the hall in Mark’s Act 2 monologue. His diction was reasonably good and he was alive to the meaning of the words. Andrew Staples also acquitted himself extremely well and his expressive and lyrical tenor voice soared through the hall from offstage in the opening monologue.
Bychkov and the BBC SO were exceptional and played on all cylinders throughout the performance. The opening prelude had a silky smoothness and the intonation and phrasing was spot on. The pulse was flexible enough to accommodate shifts of mood and there was an excellent palette of colours and dynamics. There was some lovely tone painting at the beginning of Act 2 while the fires of passion were well and truly kindled at the beginning of the great love scene. Towards the end of the scene the orchestra provided a shimmering tapestry of sound to accompany the ecstatic lovers. Bravo to Alison Teale who played the cor anglais solo at the beginning of Act 3 in such a sinuous and seductive way; Wagner insisted on an excellent cor anglais soloist for this opera and he got one. It was difficult to fault the orchestral performances but it has to be said that they did on occasion drown out the soloists. I can appreciate the need to sustain the intensity of the performances, particularly in this music, but Bychkov could have perhaps reined the orchestra in a little more.
Overall, this was an evening of great music making and the cast and orchestra did a terrific job with one of the most groundbreaking pieces of music in the entire classical canon.