Wagner: Tristan and Isolde (concert performance) Soloists, Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 26.09.2010
Gary Lehman Tristan
Violeta Urmana Isolde
Anne-Sofie von Otter Brangäne
Matthew Best King Marke
Jukka Rasilainen Kurwenal
Stephen Gadd Melot
Joshua Ellicott Shepherd/Sailor
Darren Jeffery Helmsman
Bill Viola visual artist
Peter Sellars artistic collaborator
Multimedia additions have been the selling point of the Philharmonia's Tristan project, but innovative as they are, the most insightful contribution here is from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. He's not known as a Wagnerian, nor do his musical inclinations suggest a natural sympathy with the composer. The success of the result was, I think, the result of a certain friction between Salonen and Wagner. It meant that the musical focus of the work shifted, and the dramatic significance of the orchestra was cast in a new light.
Typically for Salonen, the sheer physical energy from the podium maintained the momentum throughout the work. At the opening of the prelude, he beat the six quavers of each bar with heavy, deliberate strokes. He then continued to conduct the whole of the prelude like this, never tempted to fall back into a relaxed two in a bar. The result was sustained dramatic intensity from the orchestra, even through the extended passages of mid-range dynamics from the strings and woodwind. Salonen's stock in trade is the evenly paced crescendo leading to intense and sustained climax. Wagner provides many such opportunities, but unfortunately most of them are in his other operas. Musically, the defining moment of this performance was the conclusion of the first act. The ship, upon which the action has so far taken place, reaches the coast of Cornwall and is greeted by the retinue of King Marke, all of whom – the trumpeters and the choir of guards – were distributed around the auditorium. It was a classic Salonen moment, dramatic, intense and searing.
In comparison to this, most of the rest of the score was relatively understated, and while Salonen ensured that the balance and ensemble were always finely measured, he was happy for the lead singers to dictate the mood. This was something of a relief, as watching his intensely expressed beat in the prelude, it seemed as if he was planning to control the entire opera with a Solti-esque iron grip.
Salonen's faith in his singers is well founded. The cast for this production is impressively, and almost uniformly, strong. However, one or two singers really do stand out. First and foremost is Gary Lehman, who is that rarest of opera singers, a Wagnerian heldentenor who is actually up to the job. His voice isn't the strongest I've heard, but it has enough power to carry over Salonen's inflated orchestral textures. He has a pure sound in the upper register and an almost baritone richness to the lower end. Both he and Violeta Urmana, his Isolde for the evening, can also be heard in Gergiev's new Parsifal recording. Both shine in Tristan as well as they do in Parsifal, and to hear them together live is a real treat.
The support cast contains some top flight Wagnerians too. Urmana is a great Isolde, but there were one or two occasions when the more experienced and more timbrally distinctive Anne Sofie von Otter came close to upstaging her as Brangäne. Matthew Best has the ideal presence of tone, not to mention stamina in Act 2, for King Marke. He too is an ideal singer for this project, in that there is never any danger of his being overpowered by the on-stage orchestra.
The Philharmonia were on their usual top form. As ever under Salonen, they were regularly taken outside their comfort zone in terms of dynamics and always coped well. The lower strings are a real strength of this orchestra and get many chances to shine in Tristan, the preludes to the Acts 1 and 3 spring to mind. Fabulous cor anglais playing from Jill Crowther. The instrument is used in so many contexts that it could almost be considered one of the cast, and its sheer variety of timbres really aided the dramatic credibility.
Which brings us to the video instillation. I notice that the term 'semi-staged' was not used in any of the publicity material, which is probably just as well, because it was about a quarter staged at most. In some of the scenes, the singers were distributed around the auditorium, but in general it was as if the live action had been deliberately played down in order not to distract from the video projections. Bill Viola has taken two basic approaches to the work, an almost prosaic literalism and a more abstract symbolism. With four hours or so of music, there is plenty of time for both, but their combination can lead to disorientation and incoherency. Each of the first two acts opens at the literal end of the scale, the first with images of the sea, the second with night time images of a forest. And at the end of act 1, when the ship reaches the coast, that is also literally depicted, although the North coast of Cornwall looks suspiciously like the South coast of California. For the abstract episodes, he takes a few visual metaphors that he then presents in a variety of contexts. Love/love potion/love magic are all represented by water, a visual device that flows seamlessly from the maritime imagery of the opening. Passion and lust are represented by fire and also by...well, gratuitous nudity. That's not a complaint, although it does mean that a number of the surtitles go unread. In general, the pace of the imagery is deliberately slow, figures moving in slow motion interspersed with slowly transforming abstract images. This has the practical benefit of filling the time, but also means that the video and the live action, such as it is, move at different speeds. It is as if the singers are playing out Wagner's skeletal narrative, while the video addresses the underlying and timeless philosophical issues.
Clever then, but also waywardly incoherent, and occasionally struggling for ideas. The video is at its best in the final scene (I won't give away the details) and musically these last 20 minutes were also exceptional. Urmana saved something in reserve for the closing scene, and was brilliantly supported by Salonen, who drew a smouldering intensity from the orchestra. Impressive stamina all round, especially considering that most of the performers are not generally known for their Wagner. The video is likely to remain controversial, but I suspect that acclaim for the musical side of Salonen's Tristan project will be universal.