Tristan und Isolde, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Festival Hall, September 2010

This concert performance has intriguing extra features: lighting that can illuminate singers or plunge them into darkness, appearances of performers from off-stage positions, and remarkable video projections by Bill Viola. In the overture all was dark . . . until the voice of the young sailor emerged from the side of the auditorium, and the lights shone on Isolde and Brangäne on stage. Then the video projections started, showing water, fire, earth and sky.

Anyone who has seen David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia will know that wonderful moment at the beginning when a distant figure appears shimmering on the horizon. I was reminded of it in Act I when, after scenes of the sea, the video projections showed two windows through which we see two dots on the horizon. These two separate vanishing points turn into tiny figures walking towards us — a man and a woman. Act III later produces an even closer approximation to Lawrence of Arabia when Tristan lies dying. As he sings “Isolde lebt” a shimmering figure appears as if in a mirage, clothed in a long blue robe with a red headscarf covering her face. She vanishes and then reappears when he asks Kurwenal whether he can’t see the ship, “Kurwenal, siehst du es nicht?”, only to vanish and reappear again with “Das Schiff? Sähst du’s noch nicht?”. This vision, as if from the Arabian Nights, is never quite real, until the off-stage trumpet sounds, the trombones play, the tuba rumbles, and the screen is a mass of flames almost silhouetting the robed figure, before she falls into water. Isolde’s ship has arrived.

When staging this opera it is difficult to do anything that remotely assists Wagner’s extraordinary music, so in a sense one might as well have a concert performance, but I thought the video projections added to it in many places. In Act II we see a dark wood in which lamps move around searching for the lovers, and then we are looking straight up at the sky to see a full moon shining on the trees. A full moon is at its zenith at midnight. “Rette dich, Tristan!” is sung from a side balcony, and Melot calmly walks on stage. As Marke appears the lights go out on Melot, and during Marke’s monologue we see dawn slowly emerge, reminding me of Giselle when dawn breaks and the wilis’ power vanishes, just as the union of Tristan and Isolde disappears in the daylight. This opera is about the lovers’ desire for permanent night, well captured by Isolde when she sings, “dem Licht des Tages wollt’ ich entfliehn, dorthin in die Nacht dich mit mir ziehn”, showing her desire to flee from daylight to night with Tristan, but it is not yet to be.

In the early part of Act III the video projections show clouds looking almost extra-terrestrial, reminding me of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus journeys to mysterious islands in the back of beyond. This was somehow an enchanted island removed from the normal world of daylight. But I have said nothing yet of the main feature — the music.

Esa-Pekka Salonen produced glorious sounds from the Philharmonia, giving us moments of explosive tension and of gentle lyricism. Gary Lehman sang a wonderful Tristan — what a marvellous find he is — and Jukka Rasilainen was a superb Kurwenal, recalling his excellent performance of the same role at Bayreuth last year. Matthew Best was a warm and strong King Marke, as I expected having heard his superb La Roche in Capriccio this summer, to say nothing of his excellent Ramfis in Aida two years ago. As Isolde, Violeta Urmana sang strongly, rising well above the orchestra when necessary, and Anne Sophie von Otter was arguably the best Brangäne I have ever seen. Her face and body language was superb, and her singing was warmly lyrical and perfectly suited to this Wagnerian mezzo role. The whole cast did a wonderful job, with Stephen Gadd as Melot and Joshua Ellicott brilliant as both the shepherd in Act III and the young sailor in Act I.

The conception for this staging is due to Peter Sellars who produced a more elaborate version for the Bastille Opera in Paris, collaborating with Bill Viola on the video projections. At the Festival Hall this was a dress rehearsal, and although the main performance on 26th September is already sold out you can still find a few seats available in Dortmund, Luzern, and Birmingham. It’s worth booking immediately and then finding a train or plane to get you there — the dates are: Luzern on September 10, Dortmund on September 17, Birmingham on September 22, and finally London on September 26.

4 Responses to “Tristan und Isolde, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Festival Hall, September 2010”

  1. We’ve just uploaded a podcast feature on this production here – hope you enjoy:

  2. operaprince says:

    This was indeed a memorable evening of world class opera.
    I thought Viola’s videography was alright.
    It enhanced, for the most part- but was never in the way of Salonen and Co.

    Hard to imagine, but Rasilainen was even better when I heard him in Bayreuth.

    All in all a fantastic performance yesterday at the RFH.

  3. Tony Axe says:

    I attended the performance of this ‘production’ in Birmingham and with the Symphony Hall’s unbelievable accoustic, I totally concur with the comments regarding the musical performance. If there is one Wagner opera (and I hope Wagner and his notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk will forgive me for saying this) that can dispense with the visual elements of a staged production it must be ‘Tristan und Isolde’. Most of the ‘action’ takes place in the subconscious and emotional life of the two protagonists, a point well made in the recent Covent Garden production. So I went along to this concert performance with some trepidation, wondering what visuals would be supplied on the much-vaunted huge screen. I didn’t like them. The images I could understand and which seemed relevant to the music and plot were trite. One example is the lights moving through the forest for the hunting episode in Act II. Other images were just plain distracting. During the first act a couple, presumably representing Tristan and Isolde slowly took off all their clothes, ending up full-frontally stark naked. I spent a lot of this time wondering if the man was suppoed to be Tristan or King Mark. He was certainly old enough to be Tristan’s father. The Liebestod at the end has, in my experience, never been realised effectively on the stage. For me, the only image that really worked was when the body of Tristan slowly rose through an ascending flow of water. the surrealism of this image matched the infinite imagery of the music. From the reviews I have read by the professional critics, this was the one they found ridiculous. Chacun à son goût, as they say. In sum, I could have done without the annoying projected images but the musical performance was indeed glorious.

    • markronan says:

      I do agree with your objection to the images of two people taking their clothes off. I found that sequence pointless and distracting. The images I liked were the abstract ones.

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