Tristan und Isolde, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Festival Hall, September 2010Posted on 4 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.