Tristan und Isolde

Reginald Goodall
Soloists of the Welsh National Opera Chorale
Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera
22 September 1979
New Theatre Cardiff
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanJohn Mitchinson
IsoldeLinda Esther Gray
BrangäneAnne Wilkens
KurwenalBent Norup
König MarkeGwynne Howell
MelotNicholas Folwell
Ein junger SeemannMark Hamilton
Ein HirtArthur Davies
SteuermannGeoffrey Moses
The Spectator

Goodall’s great ‘Tristan’

In a callow, English sort of way it is easy to get impatient with Tristan and Isolde. A few good cold baths, you feel, would sort them out, and if they simply got on with it instead of wasting time philosophising — a curious form of foreplay — then they wouldn’t get caught. A lengthy cautionary tale for adulterers? And what, so experts tell us, should take seven minutes, instead takes what seems like seven hours, and even then it doesn’t happen. All of which is my not entirely facetious way of admitting that I was dreading hearing the work in, as it were. slow motion under Reginald Goodall.

The measured tread of his Ring, the prolonged pain of his Parsifal, the gentle warmth of his Mastersingers, the Titanic majesty of his Bruckner (the BBC should be,„ shot for not yet having squeezed a Bruckner cycle out of him — who, having heard his Seventh and Eighth symphonies all those years ago will ever forget them?): all well and good, if I may Englishly understate. But a measured, gentle. prolonged, majestic Tristan? I hope I was the only one to underestimate Goodall in this crass way.

His Parsifal and Ring do indeed have a Knappertsbusch-like breadth and lyricism. But his Tristan inhabits a completely different sound world, the difference not just to be accounted for by a new theatre and a new orchestra. The string sound has a bite and edge heard neither from Goodall in London nor hitherto from the Welsh National Opera Orchestra under anyone. It still dominates the orchestral fabric, with brass and woodwind blending in homogeneously in the inimitable Goodall fashion, yet still remaining wholly clear in texture. After a Prelude moving inexorably from musical hesitancy to almost tangible involvement, the first act comes as a complete surprise: fast but never driven; intensely, almost operatically dramatic yet never facile, the tension under control from first bar to last. The overflowing eroticism of the second act makes Carlos Kleiber, the ranking Tristan conductor of the day, sound positively mimsy by comparison, and in the third we were on more familiar, Parsifal-pain-like territory, the long, aching arcs of Tristan’s love-death delirium drawn out with wellnigh intolerable realism.

The reference point for this passionate, hypertense, priapic Tristan is of course Furtwangler, and indeed Goodall worked on the HMV recording released in 1953. It says a lot about England that this towering genius should have been on the music staff at Covent Garden for two decades and more, serving under notably inferior musical directors and being given virtually nothing to do; in his field there were only two guests in the same league, Kempe and Kleiber Ore. All the conductors with whom he is to be compared are dead; on the evidence of this Tristan he is not only, saints be praised, very much alive, but kicking hard as well. All power to the Welsh National for taking advantage of another shameful period of underemployment in London.But what Goodall does in the pit is only half the story. Under his painstaking guidance two singers taking the title roles for the first time give interpretations far outstripping anything I have heard before in the theatre. Whatever the orchestral splendour, Goodall performances are governed by singers’ words and notes. The purely musical quality of Linda Esther Gray’s and John Mitchinson’s phrasing, with lots of Goodall portamento, is overwhelming; not since Flagstad have passages like ‘Nicht Hornerschall’ or `Meinst du Herr Melot’ been so lovingly caressed, and Mr Mitchinson has all the vocal intensity of a Vickers without the ‘mooing’ delivery. Miss Gray’s young, gleaming tone is under perfect control, her intonation faultless: of what other Isolde can you say that today? God grant that this super young talent escapes exploit,ation by ruthless atents and managements. And both artists, aided by Goodall and doubtless by the German producer Peter Brenner, make the words mean something, believe in them, and communicate their belief to the audience. The uncut philosophising of the second act was clear and cogent.

Miss Gray’s impressive stage presence — she stands and moves majestically, every inch the proud, sarcastic, passionate, ultimately transfigured princess — was a gift to Mr Brenner, With great skill he disguised Mr Mitchinson’s limited acting experience by canny use of props on Klaus Teepe’s post-Wieland tea-tray of a permanent set; some shadow-play in the first act does not work, but for the rest he finds and uses one strong visual symbol in each act to support and reveal the tenor’s greatest natural asset — simple dignity and probity. Similarly he finds and uses Nicholas Folwell’s strong personality as Melot; a handful of lines, but he dominates the stage whenever he is on it, often at the expense of Bent Norup (Kurwenal), a fine singer but blank actor. All of which suggests that Mr Brenner comes, sees what he has, and makes the best of it, unlike some guests from Germany — and you all know who I mean — who come with their ball-aching, cast-iron concepts already set, and impose them, puppet-master-like, on their artists in what I am tempted to dub, but won’t, the neo-fascist school of opera production. The advantage of abstract and often very beautiful decor is that the Brenner approach is feasible.

I must mention the WNO orchestra’s playing, noticeably just that in the first act but world class from the second onwards, Gwynne Howell’s incomparably musical Mark, Anne Wilkens’s firm and clear Brangaene, and Arthur Davies’s strongly characterised Shepherd. In sum, this was the first Tristan to mean anything to me in the theatre; the original Peter Hall production, which ran for three or four performances, if that, at Covent Garden, was visually stunning but musically negligible; most others have simply failed to communicate what Wagner wrote — and I cannot believe that their failure was entirely due to my own lack of receptivity. This Tristan does communicate at every level: it is a great musical and erotic experience, and I swear never to be facetious about the work again,

Rodney Milnes | 15 SEPTEMBER 1979


No provincial opera company anywhere will attempt Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde without being sure of achieving something special, even though the cast is quite small, the chorus hardly used. Wagner composed it for commercial success with, he hoped, many productions all over Germanspeaking territory. The theme is sublime, the cast must be faultless in acting as well as singing, the orchestra capable in a score even now almost as difficult as anything by, say, Schoenberg. Yet it is as meaningful as anything in music, and as captivating, as desirable an acquisition to the company’s repet tory, as Verdi’s Otello, or Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Some years ago Scottish Opera brought out a Tristan, produced by Michael Geliot whose affiliations are with Wales; it came to London. This summer Welsh National Opera itself produced Tristan in Cardiff, to be taken to Birmingham and Bristol, later to London and Oxford, hopefully to be revived here and there in years to come. The chief inspiration and achievement was surely Reginald Goodall, a neglected but major Wagnerian conductor who has conducted the work at Covent Garden, but not hitherto been in musical charge of a new production. The Welsh Tristan, of which I saw the third performance, was orchestrally magnificent, even granted some misdemeanours by the horn department, and Goodall’s control of the orchestra was a joy to hear, marvellously stylish in phrasing and balance, scrupulously structured and quite dynamic (by no means slow, witness the music after the potiondrinking, and much of the second act up to the love duet: in fact this performance ended some 15 minutes earlier than that on the first night), most attentive to the singers, though some words were still hard to hear even by those who understand German. Wagner’s music, the most divine that he ever wrote for singing voices, was exquisitely delivered by Linda Esther Gray as Isolde, at 31 far too young to sing the part, if her glorious, wellbuilt soprano is to survive for the two or three decades, at least, which it deserves. Yet I am thankful to have seen and heard her now in the role, so generous and rich was the sound, so vivid the declamation, so vivid her acting within the statuesque, plastique, style prescribed by the producer Peter Brenner. From the moment when Isolde rejects Tristan’s offer to be stabbed with his sword (*War MoroId dir so wert’), through the couple’s reaction to the drinking of the potion her impersonation was ideal in feeling and detail, verbal and musical. I shall never forget her Burne-Jones pose as she faced Tristan while the potion coursed through their veins, a vision of ideal feminine beauty. The impact had derived from her beginning as a dull, correct, well-bred girl on her couch in the ship, the mainsail doing duty for Wagner’s hangings, claustrophobia rejected in favour of minimal privacy, an ideal well furthered at ‘Herr Tristan trete em’ when he moved towards the sail, his shadow growing ever more fearsomely gigantic, with a slight pause before the man appeared and then John Mitchinson looked ugly and baleful, ill made-up but singing poetically, with authority and noble heroic tone: in the third act his face looked perfectly personable, even heroic, like his singing of this long scene, so why not throughout? Their love scene was curiously represented, the couple standing many feet apart, facing the audience, singing gloriously for all they were worth, superbly from ‘So sturben wir’. I liked the busy, servile, girlish Brangaene of Anne Wilkens, most voluptuous in her song from the watchtower. The lighting here, green night yielding to blue day, struck potently home, and close thereafter came Gwynne Howell’s exquisitely enunciated, dignified-voiced King Mark. All the minor roles were taken with distinction. Mark Hamilton’s Sailor, Nicholas Folwell’s handsome, unvillainous Melot, Bent Norup’s robust, dogged, youthful Kurwenal, Arthur Davies’s boyish Shepherd — the opera had been consistently cast for contrast between Mark, the old King, and his young court and retinue. Klaus Teepe’s settings were based on a gold-coloured false floor with rimmed sides, at first the boat, thereafter convincingly the garden and the TRISTAN UND ISOLDE Opera in three acts; words and music by Richard Wagner. Producer Peter Brenner: designer Klaus Teepe. First night of new production by the Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre, Cardiff, 8 September 1979. Date of performance under review September 22 Tristan John Mitchinson Kurwenal Bent Norup King Marke Gwynne Howell Melot Nicholas Folwell Sailor Mark Hamilton Shepherd Arthur Davies Isolde Linda Esther Gray Brangaene Anne Wilkens Helmsman Geoffrey Moses Conductor: Reginald Goodall courtyard of Kareol with relevant props, set some feet above the stage floor. His costumes, blue for the name-parts, drab colours for the others, look to me tiresomely fussy, especially Tristan’s. Some features of Brenner’s production have been mentioned: it is heavily stylised, at times helpfully statuesque, now and then really imaginative, but not a coherent, positive statement about the drama’s workings. Yet it gave a respectable background to a musical interpretation of memorable vitality and penetration. Those who have tickets for the performance at the Dominion Theatre in London during December should be in for a treat, though fans of Miss Gray and Margaret Curphey may hope that the latter will be well enough to sing the Isolde in that large theatre.

HAROLD ROSENTHAL | November 1979

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A production by Peter Brenner