Tristan and Isolde review (WASO, Perth)

Tristan und Isolde, Stuart Skelton, Gun-Brit Barkmin, Ekaterina Gubanova, Boaz Daniel, Ain Anger, WA Symphony Orchestra, Asher Fisch, Perth Concert Hall, August 16 and 19

Since becoming Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of WASO in 2014, Asher Fisch has been assiduously cultivating the orchestra’s sound and profile and ambitiously extending its repertoire and programming. A specialist in German Romantic and post-Romantic opera and symphonic music, he began his career as Barenboim’s assistant at the Berlin Staatsoper, and has since held positions or been a guest conductor with most of the major European and North American opera houses and orchestras. Under his baton (and the sensitive leadership of concertmaster Laurence Jackson) the WASO strings in particular have developed a more sumptuously blended European sound, while the wind and percussion sections (led by many fine individual players) have continued to go from strength to strength. 

In terms of programming, Fisch has embarked on a notable series of composer-specific projects with the orchestra, including their Beethoven and Brahms cycles in 2014 and 2015, and ‘Wagner and Beyond’ concerts in 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile, he has invited outstanding international colleagues and friends like Pinchas Zukerman and Garrick Ohlsson to appear with WASO as soloists. The 90th Anniversary Gala concert performances of Tristan und Isolde last Thursday and Sunday were in some ways a culmination of all these strands in Fisch’s work with the orchestra so far, featuring one of the world’s leading heldentenors, Australian Stuart Skelton, as Tristan; German rising-star soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin (pictured above) as Isolde (a last-minute replacement for Eva-Maria Westbroek); and a supporting cast of international specialists in their respective roles, including Russian mezzo Ekaternina Gubanova as Brangäne, Israeli baritone Boaz Daniel as Kurwenal, and Estonian bass-baritone Ain Anger (who has sung Fafner and Hunding in various Ring cycles) as King Marke.

Tristan und Isolde is a watershed both in terms of Wagner’s development and that of the entire history of Western music. Much has been made of the famously ambiguous ‘Tristan-chord’ that opens the prelude and the chromaticism that subsequently pervades the opera, opening the door to the abandonment of tonality by Schoenberg and his followers; but the work’s dispensation with other traditional musical forms and structures like discernible arias, conventional harmonic progression or thematic development, and its constantly changing time-signatures and rhythmic patterns (like the sea that is such a central element in its narrative setting and emotional landscape) – all of this makes it almost like the musical equivalent of free verse. In terms of dramatic content its ethereal setting, minimal plot, static action, emotionally paralysed characters and their increasingly prolonged and tormented monologues anticipate the subsequent theatrical development of Symbolism and Expressionism. Its underlying philosophical and psychological themes also break new ground, whether as a direct expression of Wagner’s reading of Schopenhauer and the latter’s pessimistic twist on German Idealism – which was influenced in turn by a peculiar reading of Buddhism – or as a harbinger of Freud’s imminent discovery of sexuality and the death instinct as the driving forces of the unconscious (unbewusst being one of the last words of the Liebestod sung by Isolde at the end of the opera). 

Tristan is thus an aesthetic turning-point in music, opera and drama; a  philosophical meditation on the relationship between love and death, being and non-being, knowing and un-knowing, seeing and not-seeing, language and silence (or rather, wordlessness); and a distorted reflection of the composer’s own acts of betrayal, infidelity, spite, resentment, revenge and ingratitude towards almost everyone, including lovers, friends, benefactors, colleagues and (most notoriously) Jews – regarding all of which perhaps we can say that at least in the case of Tristan the truth-content of the work transcended the egregious failings of the artist. 

It’s above all on a sonic level (as well imaginatively and conceptually) that I found this concert performance so overwhelming from the moment the cellos began the sighing, soaring, yearning ‘Tristan’ leitmotif that opens the Prelude.

A concert performance thus has much to recommend it as an appropriate form of representation for a work that ultimately challenges the limits of representation itself. As Tristan sings to King Marke, when the latter asks how the pain and shame of his betrayal and jealousy can be explained: ‘O King, that I cannot tell you; and what you ask, that can you never learn’; before going on to invoke an obscure primordial realm of darkness, unconsciousness and non-existence, which he explicitly compares to his mother’s womb, and which he longs to return to by ‘extinguishing’ the light of day, consciousness and ultimately life itself. Hearing Tristan performed without seeing it staged thus allows us to ‘see’ its images with the mind’s eye, much as Tristan ‘sees’ Isolde’s ship (and Isolde herself) arriving in Act Three (even when she arrives in the flesh, he ‘sees’ and ‘hears’ without seeing or hearing her, until finally the two lovers ‘join’ each other in the ecstasy of death). A concert performance thus remains true to the opera’s negative theology or via negativa, in which the sensory world of appearance is seen and known to be an illusion in comparison with the real (while the latter cannot be represented or directly experienced, except in death). It grants us access to the negative vision of ecstasy in the vast Love-Duet in Act Two that lies at the heart of the opera, when the torches in Isolde’s garden are extinguished and the two lovers entwine and merge in a kind of soul-union – not physically (despite the pulsing, thrusting, accelerating and surging moans of the orchestra) but vocally and sonically.

Indeed, it’s above all on a sonic level (as well imaginatively and conceptually) that I found this concert performance so overwhelming from the moment the cellos began the sighing, soaring, yearning ‘Tristan’ leitmotif that opens the Prelude. Quite simply, no conventional staging in an opera house – with the orchestra buried in a covered pit beneath the stage (a technical innovation ironically instigated by Wagner himself) and singers typically framed by a proscenium arch with a fly-tower and wings extending above and to either side of them (and thus all-too-frequently swallowing their voices) – can match the sound of an orchestra (and the singers in front of it) on an open stage in a concert hall (especially one with the acoustics of Perth, widely regarded as the finest in the country) in terms of sheer impact as well as detail. Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the front row of the audience and right in front of Isolde, who sings the lion’s share of Act One; she was later joined on that side of the stage by Tristan for the Love-Duet in Act Two; he returned there for the immense monologue that forms the bulk of Act Three; and Isolde rejoined him there again for his death, and to sing the final Liebestod. 

As for the performances: Gun-Brit Barkmin was a thrilling Isolde, her hard bright silver-edged soprano as sharp as a sword but with plenty of depth to support it. A specialist in roles like Salome and Marie in Wozzek, she evoked a youthful but strong-willed Isolde, and this together with the controlled intensity of her acting made the role almost seem like an Expressionist prototype (an impression enhanced by her Louise Brooks-style bob haircut and expressive face and hands). Her voice and characterisation also made for a satisfying contrast with Ekaterina Gubanova’s warm, rich mezzo and compassionate performance as Brangäne in Acts One and Two, especially when the two vocal lines are interrupting or calling and responding to each other. One of the most beautiful passages in the entire opera is Brangäne’s Watch (Habet acht! –‘Take care!’), which she sings during a lull in the Love Duet between Tristan and Isolde in Act Two; and this was memorably staged by having Gubanova appear and sing above and behind most of the audience in the Dress Circle, thus immersing us sonically in the scene.

In many ways this was the most thrilling experience I’ve had from Fisch and WASO so far – as well as one of the most revelatory Wagner experiences I’ve had in my life.

Stuart Skelton is currently at his peak as Tristan, and clearly knows the role like the back of his hand, but still seemed open to a sense of discovery, especially in his evident rapport with Barkmin. The voice is effortlessly powerful (except when effort is required as part of the performance, as it is in Act Three), but perhaps at its most impressive when it softens and caresses like brushed velvet, as it did during the ineffably tender Love Duet. Despite his power, maturity and assurance, he seemed almost to defer to Barkmin’s more impulsive and at times more fragile Isolde, and his emotional desolation and psychological disintegration in Act Three was unbearably heartbreaking. He was ably supported by Boaz Daniel’s rich-voiced Kurwenal, who gave a slightly hammy performance in Act One, but inhabited the role more genuinely and touchingly in Act Three; while Ain Anger in his two crucial appearances as King Marke endowed this difficult role as the wounded but forgiving husband and friend with dignity and pathos, giving a subtle and understated performance – assisted by a magnificent voice – that conveyed the complexity of this character’s feelings.

For me though the hero of the night was Maestro Fisch, whose rendition of the score combined the drive and energy of Kleiber with the control and attention to sensuous beauty of Karajan (to cite just two of the many great conductors of this work), while always remaining in a state of creative rapport (and evident pleasure) with the singers and the orchestra. The sound he coaxed from the WASO strings was ravishing, led by delicate and heartfelt playing from Laurence Jackson, with outstanding contributions from Alexander Millier on bass clarinet and Leanne Glover on cor anglais. 

In many ways this was the most thrilling experience I’ve had from Fisch and WASO so far – as well as one of the most revelatory Wagner experiences I’ve had in my life. I’m consumed with curiosity about what Fisch has in store for us next year. A concert performance of Parsifal perhaps? Bring it on.

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3 responses to “Tristan and Isolde review (WASO, Perth)

  1. Perhaps not the last word in a review of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”, but what else might be capable of being said? It is not often that a “what have I missed?” can be uttered with sincere conviction, but this was my comment after only a few paragraphs into the review.
    Why cannot Covent Garden or the Albert Hall (both in London, one of the great music capitols of the world) offer a spectacular such as took place in Perth. That city is placed more firmly on the map with Fisch, the WASO and the Perth Concert Hall.
    I will return to Wagner with renewed enthusiasm.

  2. Phil Everall was a last minute replacement for Alex Millier on Bass Clarinet, and as you said he did a great job

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