Further to Rome’s Magnificent Tristan

ItalyItaly Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera/Daniele Gatti (conductor), Rome, 11.12. 2016. (JB)

Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
King Marke – Andreas Hörl
Isolde – Rachel Nicholls
Kurwenal – Brett Polegato
Melot – Andrew Rees
Brangäne – Michelle Breedt
A young mariner – Rainer Trost
A shepherd – Gregory Bonfatti

New staging by Pierre Audi
Dramaturgy – Willem Bruls
Sets and costume – Christof Hetzer
Lighting – Jean Kalman
Video – Anna Bertsch

Rome is under the cloud of its annual flu epidemic. Andreas Schager was billed to sing Tristan in all seven performances. Unfortunately, for the last one he was ‘indisposed’. This was on Sunday 11 December, exactly a fortnight from the opening. Luckily, there was a stand-in waiting to go on. And as stand-ins go, he stood in very well. In some respects, better than Schager, as I shall try to show in a minute.

In the meantime, I myself had been seriously infected by Tristan und Isolde (see why in my previous review). I tried inoculation. But playing and singing all the parts at the piano only made matters worse (or better, depending on your point of view). There was nothing for it but to throw myself on the mercy of the press office to see if they could get me into the last performance. That might ‘cure’ me.  They did. Very generous of them too. The house was packed to the rafters with no spare seats. I was delighted to see that they were being punished by their own success. There is something appropriately Tristanesque about that.

Two minutes trolling on the web had told me that Robert Dean Smith hails from Kansas City, and studied there before passing through Julliard and some European teachers. He has sung Tristan all over the world, including the Met. His voice is not as big as Schager’s, which puts him in difficulties in the role’s more dramatic outbursts. But his is a much more lyrical, expressive voice, and while Schager was very good in his death scene, Dean Smith was even more moving.  He is a lumbering fellow, but he has an admirable stage presence. He is also arguably more involved in the role than Schager; there is a feel of Tristan’s vulnerability in his performance: this makes it more realistic for the audience to empathize with his dilemma. His voice expresses pain better than it expresses joy. Occasionally, the Wagner phrase proves too long for him to keep up his admirable expression throughout. That is surely a breathing problem, which ought to be easily put right.

Andreas Hörl had the right, rich, warm bass voice as King Marke and all the vocal authority that really makes the role. But essentially this is a walk-on role, even if one you don’t forget when it is as well delivered as this. Aside from the two lovers, all the other roles are walk-on parts. The lovers seduce themselves. And us too, on a night when the seduction catches fire.

Rachel Nicholls goes from strength to seductive strength as Isolde.  She was more secure and relaxed in the role than she had been on the opening night.  Relaxed is perhaps not the right word, for there is always drama, in even her most tender passages. The Liebestod was memorable. More expressive and tender than Nilsson’s. She has now made the role her own.  Did I hear a bit of gentle bullying on the part of Daniele Gatti? He raised the orchestra much more than he had done on opening night as if to say come on, your voice is bigger than this. There were, in fact, moments when the orchestra covered her voice. But there is a Wagnerian argument for the orchestra doing just that too, as Gatti well knows.

But this remains, above all, Daniele Gatti’s Tristan; a magnificent conductor with a great orchestra. The final applause made that verdict clear. He well knows how to get the best out of both players and singers. It is not every day that an instrumentalist works with a conductor who insists that unless he or she becomes their instrument, they are not going to be able to deliver this music.  Orchestra and singers joined in the ovation for Maestro Gatti. A union made in heaven.

Jack Buckley

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