Proms Tristan & Isolde

A storm broke somewhere in the distance during the second act of the Proms’ Tristan und Isolde, but the physical atmosphere inside the Royal Albert Hall remained resolutely Im Triebhaus until the bitter end: the musical atmosphere kept up a moderate heat as well.

We had seats in the Stalls. In that typically unpredictable Royal Albert Hall fashion, we thought they would be just in front – if still principally to the side – of the singers, but alas they turned out to be broadly on the level with the singers and the front of the stage. I am thinking that I will blog later on why I think the Royal Albert Hall is a disgrace of a concert venue, and the lack of proactively published real seating plans is a relatively minor part of that. Anyway, it meant that a substantial portion of the singing happened on the opposite side of Semyon Bychkov, and what part my seating position played in that I have no idea, so I will say what I saw and heard.

Bychkov led a dramatic reading of the piece. Without compromising that sultry, intense sound-world, he brought the details of the drama up to a fever pitch in the act climaxes, with a similar thrilling attention to the small-scale orchestral dynamics that I had thought so enlivened Barenboim’s Ring performances (more of which, anon…) One example: the final chord, which swelled and ebbed again in a strikingly refulgent manner. It was a minor glory, subsequently spoiled by the ignorance of sections of the audience who, before Bychkov had lowered his baton – nay, even before the chord had finished its lengthy bounce around the Hall’s acoustic – burst into ‘I’m so clever, I know it’s ended’ applause. Bychkov nobly held his position for a good 10 seconds, before lowering his hands and beginning to acknowledge the acclaim. There are those that like to over-inflate the serious musical credentials of the Proms audience: they should be so lucky.

Vocally, the stand-out performance was Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne: effortlessly projecting a smooth, rock-solid tone, she was vividly engaged in the drama around her, reacting more to others’ utterances than all the rest of the cast put together. Her ‘Habet acht!‘ from the organ gallery was just ravishing. The mezzo-soprano voice range often has a greater difficulty punching through the Wagnerian orchestral textures, but not so with Fujimura: everything was vivid and crisp.

This wasn’t the same with either of the leads. I hesitate to compare Violeta Urmana’s Isolde to Brangäne, the former having a marathon to run, rather than a series of intense sprints, but I have to say that, albeit within a consistent and solid account of the role, there was relatively little vocal thrill, not a great deal of differentiation, nor much dramatic spark. She had credible resources still available to her at the end of this long role – which is not to be overlooked – but it didn’t get me hooked. Likewise Robert Dean Smith’s rather small-scale Tristan: there was much in the details, but I would have had to have been in a much more intimate acoustic to have been able to sustain any concentration on them. In the earlier episodes, I had hoped that Smith was holding back for the long final passages, but it came across to us (sitting, I’ll remind you, on the opposite side of the Hall from where he was routinely positioned on stage) as though the orchestra finally broke over him during Act 3, and much of his monologue was swamped.

As King Marke, Kwangchui Youn had plenty of power, but it took the form of a cavernous sounding bass that tended towards a woolly and quavery delivery. I didn’t really respond to his use of the text, either – he seemed to favour a smooth line, rather than pointing up the drama and meaning of the words, I thought. For that reason, it did have its beautiful moments, but the overall power of the role was diminished.

In smaller roles, the evening kicked off brilliantly with Andrew Staples’ clarion Shepherd, from somewhere up in the Gods. Boaz Daniel’s Kurwenal was also always on the other side of the conductor, and whether for that reason or not, didn’t really make a mark until the final challenge to Melot and the fight in Act 3. David Wilson-Johnson was Melot, with relatively little to do, which he did well. Edward Price delivered the Steersman’s interjections cleanly.

Tristan und Isolde stands or falls with the thrill, intensity and sheer energy of its hero and heroine. Unfortunately, that’s the key quality that I didn’t get from this performance – I’d be interested to know whether others in more advantageous positions were more immediately gripped by them. With an orchestra so alive with details and sonorities, this served to heighten the contrast with the principals’ relatively conservative readings. Act 3, I’m afraid, seemed to take an age. I’ve always secretly wanted to lop a good half hour off Act 3 of Tristan anyway: in this case, I’ve never been so glad to hear that a boat’s arrived.

And so this afternoon, in the most bizarre bit of Proms programming for a long while, back to The Ring, and to Götterdämmerung.

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