Sunday, 28 July 2013

Tristan und Isolde

Royal Albert Hall
27 July 2013

Violeta Urman's liebestod, on a different occasion

Despite terrible vocal-orchestral balance, Wagner's dream-interlude to the Ring cycle made an overwhelming impression.

This performance, taking place between performances of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, roughly where it should be in chronological composition order, was more striking in this context than it might deserve in usual contexts.

For Semyon Bychkov conducted mercilessly, conjuring a beautiful wash of sound from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but routinely overwhelming the singers, who were helped neither by being placed so close to the orchestra, nor by the cavernous acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.

When this renders a dumbshow of a Tristan of repute, such as Robert Dean Smith (replacing Peter Seiffert, who may have been wise), Bychkov’s approach is insane. I have heard Tristans lose their voice in Act 3, but so far as I could tell Smith was instead husbanding his resources. Well, his caution and Bychkov’s relentless volume practically ruined this extraordinary drama.

Thankfully Tristan is as unsinkable as Carmen. It will have a powerful effect regardless of performance flaws. And in this position during the Ring, its vital importance was amplified.

The Ring is broadly about what kind of life (specifically love) is w orth living. With Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s ecstatic day-music ringing in our ears, the very different night-music of this drama proved the utmost contrast.

These lovers are also seeking value in their life, and in Act 2 conclude it can be obtained only by transgressing all values, and indeed seeking genuine oblivion within each other. The horrifying ‘real world’ intervenes in Act 3, where Tristan’s sufferings reach an unbearable, but enlightening, pitch. Discovering he is the source of his own suffering, he is unable to transcend it and dies too early. This leaves Isolde to perhaps transcend their sufferings; certainly that is what the music implies.
  None of this self-destruction could be the kind of new life awaiting the Ring’s necessarily world-changing heroes, but the exploration gave proms audiences a unique opportunity to learn, as Wagner himself did, more about what the new life might be.

Returning to this performance, it was dominated in every sense by the conductor, a figure regrettably more charismatic on stage than any of the singers. His orchestra created dark, flowing, potent waves of sound, so that the ending was as elating and shattering as it ought to be.

But this is much more than a tone poem with obbligato voices. Of the leads, Violeta Urmana was at least mostly audible, and has a beautiful voice, especially in the lower registers, though her upper range is much less impressive. Dean Smith, in addition to being inaudible, seemed to be biting off the words, so was neither beautiful nor convincing, a terrible performance in fact.

As often, it was left to King Mark, Kwangchul Youn, to make the best impression, taking the side of the audience, at least later, when we reflect upon what transcending our values might actually mean. When the sufferings of the lovers is no longer in front of our eyes and ears.

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