Tristan und Isolde is a perfect opera, but where are the perfect performers and, just as important, the perfect listeners to do it justice? What very often happens to me in a fine performance is that I am wholly caught up in the drama of Act I, which, for all its revolutionary musical means, is a readily comprehensible confrontation of two people who half-know what they feel but are determined to conceal it, until that is no longer possible. Then in Act II, when we meet a quite different Isolde, equally determined but now ecstatically lyrical, the exorbitant demands the work makes on me are ones I can rarely meet, because for the most part conflict is replaced by unimaginable rapture. And then, with any luck, in Act III, perhaps Wagner’s greatest and certainly his most gruelling, I am reabsorbed into the drama, half-identifying with Tristan in his unbelievable self-searchings, half with Kurwenal who realises that the love which is destroying his master is ‘the world’s most wonderful illusion’.
The only way that Act II is emotionally graspable is in its complete form — one might think that a truism, but the last few performances I have seen have all indulged in the savage cut shortly after Tristan arrives, which means that the lovers, after their initial intoxicated incoherences, reach a state where they can sing ‘I myself am the world’, without any explanation of how they have come to have such metaphysical insights. That quarter-hour passage, in which they move from their grasp of the delusions of the social and moral world into a resolve, initiated by Tristan, to reject it for the absolute claim of passion, is not only marvellous music but is also essential for us to feel what is happening to them. Yet in all the UK performances of Tristan in the last decade this cut — which could be compared to removing half the development section of a Beethoven symphony’s first movement — has, usually unmentioned, been inflicted on this scene, leaving me out in the cold.
That is what happened in the strikingly uneven concert performance of Tristan in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall last Saturday. Act I was, in almost all respects, as shattering as it should be. The prelude began with a breath-denying whisper, but grew to a climax so vast that one feared for the human drama that was to follow it. The Isolde was Lioba Braun, whose voice is not ideal for the role, either in size or range, but whose dramatic commitment and understanding, and her way of listening to the other singers — rare in concert performances — involved one completely. Unfortunately, the Tristan of Stephen Gould was a wooden affair at this stage, perhaps he thinks that is how the part should be played in Act I, but it came across more as a vocally competent but dramatically inert reading. Christianne Stotijn was a smoky Brangäne, Brett Polegato ideal, in both the outer acts, as Kurwenal. Andris Nelsons seems to be the most promising Wagner conductor for a long time, and his attention to Wagner’s incessant counterpoints made sure that the act made its volcanic impact.
Somehow nothing much worked in Act II. Braun’s lack of full tone meant that the radiant opening scene went for less than it should, Tristan plodded in for the duet, and before anyone knew where they were that had reached its unimpressive climax, with Nelsons now letting the brass cut coarsely through the textures. Even Matthew Best’s Marke, noble as he always is, was unvaried. Act III found Gould in more forthcoming mode, and though he rarely sang quietly, his two vast monologues, scored to Wagner’s blackest music, were impressive if not devastating. Braun coped with the so-miscalled Liebestod, but she didn’t bear us aloft. I wouldn’t have missed it, but it could have been so much more.
The Guildhall School chose Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for its spring opera, but performed it in the Barbican Theatre, which is more than twice the size of its usual venue. Musically they triumphed — I saw the second cast — and the acting was decent, but nothing helped to persuade me that this is not Britten’s thinnest opera. The director, Martin Lloyd-Evans, set the opening scene in a dilapidated school dormitory, not a million miles from ENO’s recent effort; Puck came on in a wheelchair: I really did think they had retired from the operatic scene. Or was this meant to be a send-up of recent styles of operatic production? Post-postmodernism is a dangerous game, it might easily get confused with its predecessor. Stephen Barlow conducted the first-rate orchestra sensitively, and while the cast had no outstanding members, the standard of singing, and of teamwork, was high. Tom Verney’s Oberon was creepy-voiced, suitable for this role but not for all that many others, I’d have thought. Dream has been aired often enough recently, could it be retired for Rape or even Owen Wingrave?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 17, 2012