Michael Tanner

Wagner treat

Tristan und Isolde<br /> <em>Royal Festival Hall</em> H&auml;nsel und Gretel second cast<br /> <em>Royal Opera House</em>

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Tristan und Isolde

Royal Festival Hall

Hänsel und Gretel second cast

Royal Opera House

There have been few treats for lovers of Wagner in London in the past few years, but handsome amends were made in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and adequate soloists in an incandescent account of Act II of Tristan und Isolde. That was preceded by the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, an acutely expressive performance, mainly chamber-like in texture, apart from the apocalypse near the conclusion. But it was a downer, as, alone, it is bound to be. Wonderful to return after the interval and to be launched, with the greatest possible impulse, into the central act of Tristan.

In the theatre, I have come almost to dread this act. Act I is so staggeringly dramatic, so draining, that the prolonged exaltations of Act II are hard to do justice to, for the listener as well as the performers. And I think the love duet, so called, is the most difficult stretch of music, 40 minutes without the nefarious cut (and it was performed complete here) that Wagner wrote. There is the Depiction of Erotic Chaos to begin with, which so easily degenerates into half-drowned shrieks; then the long stretch, amazing in its colours and its development of tiny thematic fragments, in which the lovers excoriate Day; then the sublime throbbing and immense climax of ‘O’ sink’ hernieder,’ demanding fabulous control and power on all sides; Brangäne’s watch song, the lengthy dialectic of separation and union, and on to the enormous home stretch until the still shocking climax and the scream that cuts it short. When has one heard it conducted convincingly? Only by Reginald Goodall in the theatre, perhaps at all, and now by Jurowski. He has everything that makes a great Wagner conductor, above all the temperament and the discipline.

The lovers were not great singers, but they were able to cope, mostly, and Anja Kampe took an early slip in her stride and produced some lovely phrases, never evidently tiring; her voice is not quite as large as the role requires. The same goes for Robert Dean Smith, but he is the only tenor I’ve heard since Siegfried Jerusalem to sing the part fairly beautifully; but his bidding of Isolde to follow him, at the act’s end, lacked the poignant inwardness that this supreme passage needs. Sarah Connolly was an ideal Brangäne, making every phrase tell, and showing that Wagner really does write ‘endless melody’. Laszlo Polgar, alas, was suffering from so heavy a cold that he could only manage a kind of speech-song for his lament, though it may have been the most expressive croaking I have heard. Now we have to wait until Glyndebourne does the whole work next year, fortunately with the same conductor and Isolde. Please may it not be cut, as it has been so far there.

A couple of evenings after the première of Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera I returned for the second, completely different cast, and under a different conductor. Swings and roundabouts, but all told, and bearing in mind that I knew the production would be mediocre, I would go for the second team. Where Colin Davis conducted with infinite love and elicited exquisite tone from the orchestra, Robin Ticciati didn’t stint on affection — the opening of the overture was just as hypnotically lovely as under Davis — but he did inject a desperately needed element of mischief into the children’s music, and more importantly kept Act III moving along, where it had dragged on the first night. The lack of detailed direction by the Leiser–Caurier team was again felt throughout, with a lot of aimless wandering around the stage, Alice Coote looking merely gawky as Hänsel but singing well, while Camilla Tilling’s idea of Gretel was much more satisfactory than Damrau’s. The parents are an excellent pair, Eike Wilm Schulte the most convincing performer of all, small as his role is. Ann Murray’s Witch I found superior to Silja’s, perhaps because one always expects Silja to be a revelatory artist. I was still more disturbed, however, by the production’s change of gear after Act II, which doesn’t correspond to anything in the music, and while making the gingerbread house a tiny toy, horribly inflates the Witch’s abattoir, attempting to wrench us into a quite alien mode of feeling. Nor did the children find much to do with themselves in those dire circumstances. But the music echoes through one’s head for days...so far.