Review: Tristan and Isolde

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Published: 7th February, 2018

Tackling increasingly difficult Wagner operas with notable success, Melbourne Opera braved the so-called “Tristan Curse” and, although not unscathed, produced a memorable performance of opera’s most iconic love story. Just as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra had to replace an ailing Stuart Skelton for their concert performances of Tristan and Isolde in 2013, so illness plagued Melbourne Opera’s leading singers, resulting in the postponement of the opening night to the second scheduled performance to enable Lee Abrahmsen to recover from a chest infection. It was worth the wait; Abrahmsen proved herself to be an Isolde of considerable stature, her glorious soprano thrilling as she soared to rapturous heights again and again in one opera’s most demanding roles.

Conductor Anthony Negus used his vast experience of Wagner’s music to draw the best from an orchestra comprising a mixture of well seasoned and very young, relatively inexperienced players. Although it took a while for some members of the audience to realise that the Prelude had begun, the atmosphere of Wagner’s yearning music was quickly established as the orchestra surged in waves of voluptuous sound underpinned by Wagner’s specified complement of eight double basses. Negus was clear in his intentions, shaping the musical arcs with careful attention to detail. Rhythmic elasticity never lost momentum and quieter moments were treated with poignant feeling. The undulating sea projected onto the billowing sail of the drop curtain was the perfect vehicle for creating context without detracting from the intensity of the music.

The work of video designers Yandell Walton and Keith Deverell was most effective in the opening act and in the final scene as Abrahmsen concluded Isolde’s rapturous Liebestod against a background of a universe in molten creation. Unfortunately, best efforts were further thwarted when a power surge disrupted the video projections, including the surtitles, during Act II and the drop curtain did not quite billow out as planned at the end of Acts I and II, leaving one chorus member stranded on the wrong side of the curtain and it landing on top of others.

One costume malfunction left me in awe of Neal Cooper’s heroic composure in Act III. The role of Tristan is extremely taxing both vocally and dramatically as he hovers between life and death, tortured by his fatal wound and his passionate longing for Isolde, but Cooper also had to contend with a bloody bandage that insisted on unraveling little by little. His bright, ringing heldentenor lost none of its power at the climactic moments and he maintained his emotional focus. Throughout the opera, he was one of the few able to penetrate through denser orchestration in the lower reaches of the voice, even though Negus generally managed to prevent the singers from being overwhelmed.

The interaction between the lovers was convincingly ardent most of the time, but some of Suzanne Chaundy’s generally effective direction led to some awkward moments as the lovers tried to find comfortable positions for their love potion induced moments of passion in Act II. Abrahmsen made a particularly persuasive Isolde, her blonde beauty, shapely figure and dramatic commitment matched by sensitive musicality and a voice with a lustrous bloom and unforced expansive power at the top of the range. Lucy Birkinshaw’s costumes provided regal splendor worthy of an Irish princess about to become Queen of Cornwall. Much less impressive were the nondescript white shirt and trousers provided for Tristan, who looked decidedly unheroic despite Cooper’s manly height, healthy weight and pleasing features.

As Brangaene, who ministers the love potion in an effort to foil her mistress’s death wish, Sarah Sweeting acted expressively and sang with firm tone. Steven Gallop’s resonant bass gave his King Marke authority and presence. The easy power of his voice and commanding yet sympathetic demeanour was much appreciated by the audience.

Michael Lampard also impressed with the carrying power of his pleasant voice as Tristan’s attentive loyal friend Kurwenal – a worthy match for Jason Wasley’s treacherous Melot. The young sailor’s unaccompanied folk song that opens Act I was sung with attractive tone by tenor Henry Choo. Act III also began on a haunting note with an eloquently rendered solo on cor anglais followed by the promising tenor Michael Dimovski as the Shepherd. Rachel Curkpatrick’s cor anglais and Anne Gilby’s oboe were among many fine contributions from various sections of the orchestra.

Whether Melbourne Opera should have embarked on such a hazardous venture without understudies is a moot point; it is hard enough to secure singers to sing the title parts let alone find a viable four, and Australia’s geographic isolation makes it well nigh impossible to fly in suitable substitutes at short notice. Nevertheless, one can’t help but applaud the way this dedicated company has brought such an ambitious project to fruition, especially since it receives no government subsidies and is dependent on ticket sales and the philanthropy of generous donors such as the Henkell family.

Tristan and Isolde is, understandably, rarely performed in Melbourne, so Wagnerphiles and opera lovers in general should make the most of this opportunity to hear it. Robert Blackwood Hall might lack the allure of St Kilda’s Palais Theatre, which evokes a bygone era appropriate to the timeless nature of the opera, but its warm acoustic promises a rewarding way to experience the passion of Tristan and Isolde on February 10.