Stemme Triumphs

9 Dec

It’s been a decidedly dull few weeks for opera going and I’ve been getting a little twitchy at the lack of people singing at me. My visit to Tristan und Isolde at the ROH on December 8th cured all that.

I don’t suppose that I will ever really understand Tristan. I imagine that I’m too English, too literal. Even with surtitles, it’s very difficult to work out exactly what the two of them are on about a lot of the time. All this stuff about love, death, atonement, night and day, the elliptical, punning, over-written lines. The plot is paper thin and the ideas rather too complex for most audiences (and, I would guess, quite a lot of singers) to get. And yet there is the music, swirling passionately around the characters, commenting, enveloping and holding you transfixed, convincing you that this is a masterpiece even though you have barely understood it, filling your mind with musical images even if there’ve been quite a lot of occasions in each of the acts where you’ve wished that Wagner would get a move on. How many people really follow and understand Tristan’s ravings in Act III? Mind you, I suspect many of us would struggle to get much of King Lear’s equivalent.

Be that as it may, the Wagner magic worked at this performance and I found myself leaving the theatre on that high that follows a great performance. Let’s start with Nina Stemme. Has there been a more complete Isolde since Birgit Nilsson? And Stemme has a slight lightness to the voice, a greater vulnerability than we associate with Nilsson. She is terrifying in her anger in the first Act – pinning you in your sheets with the sheer intensity of her anger and hatred and her determination to get Tristan.  Later she conveys the simplicity and the joy of love and crowns it with a searingly simple and gorgeously sung Liebestod.   I remember that, when she first did the role at Glyndebourne, the suggestion was that she would have problems in a larger house.  Nonsense.  She manages to project throughout, riding over the orchestra with ease.  She sounds beautiful and seems untired by the end.  It’s one of the greatest performances that I’ve seen.

Stephen Gould is, vocally, a pretty worthy companion.  He seems unfazed by the difficulties, singing easily, powerfully, almost beautifully.  I don’t think that this production helps him project the character: he doesn’t have a classically heroic build and I found his acting pretty uncommunicative but, vocally, this was pretty remarkable stuff.  You had that unusual sensation in this opera of having absolute confidence in the singers to manage the entire opera without tiring.

Iain Paterson made a strong, bluff Kurwenal conveying the unthinking loyalty of the man.  Sarah Connolly was a very good Brangaene, acting the thoughtless maid really well.  Vocally she was good, but larger voices have made slightly more distinctive contributions in a house this size.  And I couldn’t help feeling that I’d rather hear her in Handel or bel canto.

Some reviewers said that John Tomlinson’s voice was a bit frayed as Marke.  Not at this performance: his monologue was wonderfully sung and put across – the bewilderment, the decency, the pain, the sadness all came across.

Ed Lyons made a strong sailer,  Neal Cooper a sinister Melot, Graham Clark an excellent, but also rather sinister, Shepherd and Yuriy Yurchuk made a strong impression as the Steersman.  Overall, this was a fine a cast for Tristan as I’ve heard.

Antonio Pappano did a marvellous job with the orchestra.  He accompanies the singers beautifully but also understands the drama – the pauses, the commentary that the music makes and the climaxes were unerringly done.  He gets some glorious effects – i remember one point where the violins simply shimmered as they entered with a delicacy and lightness that I don’t think I’ve ever heard from these players before.  Again, a really distinguished performance.

On the whole, I like Christoph Loy’s production.  I think the division of the stage in two – the world of Marke and that internal world for Tristan and Isolde works well and there are some very strong pictures.  He gets some great acting from Stemme, Connolly, Tomlinson and Paterson.  I think that there is greater scope for colour and for the sheer eroticism of the score to come out: there’s a lot of discussion, a lot of anger and sadness, but very little sex – and I think you need that for the love duet.  What you can’t deny is the sheer intelligence and certainty of the production which attains a level of interest that a number of recent new productions here haven’t begun to approach.  I hope he comes back.

So this was a really strong, distinguished evening – pretty much as good as you can hope for.  Go for Stemme and be impressed by the rest.  Just one carp.  There’s a growing habit these days of the conductor beginning the performance without taking applause as he enters.  I can understand why, but that applause gives us an opportunity to mark the beginning of the performance and settle down.  If he simply starts, we may not be ready and there was a lot of coughing and whispering marring the first bars of the prelude (and of Act II) which could probably have been avoided if we’d all applauded Pappano as he entered and then let him start.

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