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BBC Proms 2021 : Prom 34 : Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde [sound recording]

by BBC Radio 3, Glyndebourne Festival, Richard Wagner (Composer)

Other authors: Karen Cargill (Brangäne), Neal Cooper (Melot {+Tristan in Act 3}), Daniel Dooner (Director), Glyndebourne Chorus (Chorus), Paul Higgins (Stage director for BBC Proms)12 more, Stuart Jackson (Shepherd, Young sailor), London Philharmonic Orchestra (Orchestra), John Mackenzie-Lavansch (Steersman), Andrew McGregor (Presenter), Simon O’Neill (Tristan), John Relyea (King Mark), Shenyang (Kurwenal), Nigel Simeone (Contributor), Robin Ticciati (Conductor), Simon Vage (Contributor), Miina-Liisa Värelä (Isolde), Natasha Walter (Contributor)

Series: BBC Proms 2021 (34), BBC Proms Sound Recordings (202134)

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I will not be the first to remind readers that when Wagner was composing Act III of Tristan und Isolde he wrote to his muse Mathilda Wesendonck: ‘I fear the opera will be banned – unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance – only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad – I cannot imagine it otherwise’. After five performances at Glyndebourne this summer their semi-staging of Tristan came to the BBC Proms and probably drew one of the biggest audiences of a poorly attended season. Certainly for all of Act I and stretches of Act II, it was heading towards being the finest Wagner I have heard at the Royal Albert Hall since Parsifal (with a commanding Petra Lang as Kundry) almost 21 years ago to the day. That was conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and now it was his protégé Robin Ticciati (music director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera) who brought this Tristan to the Proms.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2003 and subsequently revived and would have been seen in its original version had the pandemic not intervened. The orchestra apparently needed to be socially distanced and that would only work if they filled the stage with the singers acting at the front on and around a wide stepped platform. It was infamously reviewed in The Guardian recently as suggesting ‘vanishingly little of Lehnhoff’s staging, and almost nothing of the sets and props, survive’. Director Daniel Dooner then responded: ‘Every move, head-turn, look, intention, expression and subtextual reference in Lehnhoff’s highly detailed regie is there, as is the lighting and all seven of the original props. What isn’t there is simply the set and the costumes.’

My history with this production is that when it was originally revived it was one of the first UK operas transmitted to cinemas; my wife and I didn’t enjoy what we saw and heard so much that we never stayed for the end. That was part of it, another issue might have been problems with the actual relay, but I cannot remember for certain. Lehnhoff was an assistant to Wieland Wagner at Bayreuth in the mid-1960s and – compared to all the recent Tristans I have reviewed which have little to do with Wagner’s original – his semi-abstract staging now looks ultra-traditional despite the occasionally oddity (a rather strange looking masked Stuart Jackson as the Shepherd with his slim tree branch as a staff). There was a rather Star Trek-looking series of arcs giving a time tunnel sense of depth, or perhaps it is as if we were looking into a vortex. This allowed for a series of steps for the characters to move onto, about and off.

It was generally rather static as I remember with little contact between Tristan and Isolde who often just stood side-by-side (socially distanced?) and faced out to the audience to sing, as did most of the others. There was a limited colour palette, mostly a darkish blue and briefly possibly a golden glow (as here at the Proms at the start of Act II). Another issue in 2007 was Robert Gambill and Nina Stemme; I appreciate how fêted Stemme’s Isolde is, but she has not always impressed me and Gambill was deeply disappointing. It was never conceived to test anyone’s sanity and Lehnhoff allows us to hear what the protagonists are thinking; though we are not really convinced by the motivation for their actions, nor do they really engage us emotionally. Of course, a lot of this must come from Wagner’s music which explains that which cannot be shown on stage, however something other than a stand-and-deliver approach will always help.

What was seen at Glyndebourne seems to have been faithfully recreated on this year’s specially extended Royal Albert Hall concert platform, but I suspect the singers needed to go much further than at Glyndebourne to make their entrances and exits. Changing colours flooded the stage or were replicated on the LED screens to the rear of the orchestra. Tristan and Isolde had appropriate costumes (though not the original 2003 ones) but everyone else was dressed – at best – for a standard concert performance, or – at worst- a rehearsal.

Ticciati kept everything flowing well in the narratives but there was some sense of drift in the bigger dramatic moments. Nevertheless. this flexibility in his tempos was a big plus and Ticciati clearly knows how to slowly build to a climax, cranking up the tension and holding back until the very last moment before he unleashed the total power of the impressive London Philharmonic Orchestra – notable for some incandescent changes of colour – at any of those climaxes. (Kudos to Sue Böhling’s idiomatically plaintive cor anglais amongst many virtuosic solo contributions.) Sadly, the pre-recorded chorus sounded like the ghostly crew in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman though hearing the ‘hunting horns’ and Brangäne’s portentous warnings from the far reaches of the gallery had a visceral effect. (Weirdly, John Mackenzie-Lavansch’s sweet-toned opening ‘Sailor’s Song’ seemed to emanate from the bust of Sir Henry Wood in front of the organ!) What was an issue was that the orchestra was often much too loud threatening to swamp the singers and it did from time to time, especially at the start of Act II.

If the singers have had to combat that wave of sound coming from behind them at Glyndebourne it may explain what befell Simon O’Neill after the first two acts who was announced as having lost his voice. What O’Neill did sing during his sterling Act I and his contribution to one of the finest Act II love duets I have heard showed his prominence as a heldentenor; there was never an ugly sound (of how many Tristans can you say that?), a rare lyricism, wonderful diction and suitably heroic top notes. (For my wife and me it was as if the late great Wagner tenor Alberto Remedios had been resurrected, and for us that is no higher compliment and evidence of how good we thought O’Neill was.) Glyndebourne was fortunate to have Neal Cooper’s fully prepared – off the book – alternative Tristan in the cast as Melot. He sang from the side of the stage whilst a barefooted O’Neill acted Tristan’s third act ravings often slumped on some sheepskin covered bedding as stage director Paul Higgins appeared briefly as Melot and was quickly despatched near the end of the opera. Cooper’s contribution was therefore criticproof and he sounded a stolid, reliable Tristan.

Miina-Liisa Värelä was an honourable Isolde and while her lower register was not particularly strong her high notes were secure if a little pinched. Nevertheless, she brought all the necessary dramatic conviction, focus and energy to the flame-haired ‘wild Irish maid’. Perhaps there is a question mark about her vocal stamina because her Verklärung (Liebestod) was underwhelming.

Once again, I would have preferred the singer of Brangäne to have been Isolde (why does it happen so often?). There was committed and surprisingly nuanced acting from Karen Cargill as the faithful – though meddlesome – servant and her resonant voice had power and great expressivity. There was a very solid ‘supporting cast’, with Shenyang as a rather stentorian Kurwenal, clearly loyal to his master but with little of the old retainer about him, and the sonorous John Relyea was a noble, dignified, deeply hurt, ultimately regretful King Marke.
“Now I’ve conducted Tristan for the first time,” the 27-year-old Richard Strauss wrote from Weimar to Wagner’s widow Cosima in 1892, “and it was the most wonderful day of my life”.

Robin Ticciati, over a decade older but still young in terms of his profession, has just crowned his first run of Glyndebourne Tristans with this Proms performance, and I don’t know whether he felt the same on opening night; but it’s clear that with the house’s latest music director a new golden age of Wagner conducting has begun.

You could sense it in the London Philharmonic Orchestra cellos’ opening tone-swell, the perfect, human pacing of the emotional journey unleashed – an unquenchable love-yearning not to be resolved until nearly five hours later – and the light touches of a performance that always moved forward, but never felt rushed. Different indeed from the equally compelling interpretations of Ticciati's predecessor at Glyndebourne, Vladimir Jurowski, and the slower burn, Toscanini-style, of that other great Anglo-Italian conductor Antonio Pappano.

Of course the LPO had to be given full rein in the luminous but tricky acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall – reports of its Glyndebourne position onstage, and behind the action, as here, suggest that the sound didn’t travel so well – and with the singers always with their backs to players and conductor, on the built-out apron of the concert platform, there were other problems live. Not of co-ordination - the mark of the long Glyndebourne rehearsal process with a conductor living the opera in every bar – but of balances in the hall, especially if you were sitting to the sides and voices got lost every time they turned away.

Nor were our lovers especially big and refulgent in voice. Finn Miina-Liisa Värelä is more of a lyric than a high-dramatic soprano, warm in the middle register and intelligent in textual meaning; like many Isoldes, she is better equipped for tender love than the vengeful rage of the first act, where Tristan, the killer of her honourable betrothed Morold, is taking her by ship from Ireland to Cornwall to marry his uncle King Marke.

Is Tristan a step too far for Simon O’Neill, a tenor who lives more in the head voice than in the baritonal timbre of most interpreters of this insane role who’ve survived the challenges? Last night, it wasn’t clear whether illness or exhaustion saw him conk out before the ultimate challenge of the last act, the proto-Beckett endgame of a man who can’t die from his wound until he’s seen his Isolde again. But three cheers to the Melot and presumably Glyndebourne cover Tristan, Neal Cooper, who sang Act Three from memory at the side of the stage. He’s performed Tristan in Melbourne, and it’s the kind of reliable voice which makes a performance of the opera possible rather than a flamethrower, but it helped to reinforce the orchestral fever-pitches of a soul nearing death. And with Cooper more in eye-range of Ticciati, you saw the sterling work the conductor does making sure his singers feel supported and together with the orchestra.

If we take the line of Birgit Nilsson, most fearless of Isoldes, that a great singer also has to be a great personality, that would apply more to the lovers’ loyal followers, Karen Cargill as Brangäne and Shenyang’s Kurwenal. Cargill has the temperament for the wrathful Isolde, and probably the top notes, too, though like Christa Ludwig she shouldn’t risk it.

Yet her reactions in the role were riveting, and she offered the evening’s two most beautiful concordances with incandescent orchestral sounds of the evening – the angelic (proto-Elgar Gerontius style) attempts to calm her mistress in Act One, and the warnings of Act Two, heard through the narcotic love-haze from this remarkable carrying voice high at the back of the hall.

Veteran bass John Relyea’s Marke provided all you need for the dark-hued tortures of the betrayed king – no problems with projection there – and it seemed, right at the start of the action, that Stuart Jackson’s Young Sailor would provide the most Liederish-perfect of unaccompanied offstage solos, until he had the bad luck to end a semitone sharp. It happens.

There were no such intonation problems with any of the instrumentalists. All the woodwind proved superb vocalists – amazing to hear so much of the flute lines from where I was sitting – but Ticciati made the right accolades at the end to bass clarinettist Paul Richards and cor anglais player Sue Bohling. Hurrah for supertitles, too, all too rare a feature at the Proms. Who knows what other Wagnerian adventures lie ahead for the LPO at Glyndebourne? After this minimal concert staging (Daniel Dooner after the famous Lehnhoff production, reworked by Paul Higgins for the BBC Proms), clearly the priority is a new production of Tristan by a top imaginative director, to build on the infinite hard work and sheer love of a phenomenal score on display here.
added by kleh | editThe Arts Desk, David Nice (Sep 1, 2021)

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
BBC Radio 3primary authorall editionscalculated
Glyndebourne Festivalmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Wagner, RichardComposermain authorall editionsconfirmed
Cargill, KarenBrangänesecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cooper, NealMelot {+Tristan in Act 3}secondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dooner, DanielDirectorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Glyndebourne ChorusChorussecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Higgins, PaulStage director for BBC Promssecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Jackson, StuartShepherd, Young sailorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
London Philharmonic OrchestraOrchestrasecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mackenzie-Lavansch, JohnSteersmansecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McGregor, AndrewPresentersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
O’Neill, SimonTristansecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Relyea, JohnKing Marksecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
ShenyangKurwenalsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Simeone, NigelContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ticciati, RobinConductorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Vage, SimonContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Värelä, Miina-LiisaIsoldesecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Walter, NatashaContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Live at BBC Proms: Glyndebourne Opera's production of Wagner’s Tristan, with Simon O’Neill as Tristan and Miina-Liisa Värelä as Isolde. The LPO conducted by Robin Ticciati.

Live from the Royal Albert Hall, London

Presented by Andrew McGregor.

Wagner: Tristan and Isolde

17.00: Act 1

18.25: Interval: Andrew McGregor discusses the legend of Tristan and Isolde with Cornish myths expert Simon Vage. Also, he'll be joined in the Radio 3 box by Nigel Simeone to explain how these myths were shaped by Wagner in this opera and how the piece influenced composers like Debussy and Berg, among others.

18.50: Act 2

20.10: Interval: Andrew McGregor is joined by Natasha Walter to discuss Wagner's women.

20.35: Act 3

Tristan: Simon O’Neill, tenor
Isolde: Miina-Liisa Värelä, soprano
Brangäne: Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano
Kurwenal: Shen Yang, baritone
King Mark: John Relyea, bass
Melot: Neal Cooper, tenor
Shepherd/Young Sailor: Stuart Jackson, tenor

Glyndebourne Festival Opera
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robin Ticciati

I am still looking for a work with as dangerous a fascination, with as terrible and sweet an infinity as Tristan,’ Nietzsche wrote of Wagner’s great love tragedy. A story about longing and yearning, about an unresolved and unresolvable love, expressed in music that famously denies us resolution until its very final bars, the opera still exerts the same fascination today. Glyndebourne Music Director Robin Ticciati conducts an international cast in a concert performance marking 60 years of the company’s appearances at the Proms.
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