Tristan und Isolde

Stuart Challender
The Australian Opera Chorus
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
20 February 1990
Concert Hall Opera House Sydney
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanWilliam Johns
IsoldeMarilyn Richardson
BrangäneBernadette Cullen
KurwenalMalcolm Donnelly
König MarkeDonald Shanks
MelotGeoffrey Harris
Ein junger SeemannPatrick Togher
Ein HirtPatrick Togher
SteuermannJohn Fernon

The AUSTRALIAN OPERA’S long-awaited production of Tristan und Isolde (February 10) turned out to be both a triumph and a tragedy—a triumph because much of it came off so brilliantly, a tragedy because a number of flaws and some sheer bad luck robbed it of the overwhelming success it might have had.

Because the pit of the Opera Theatre is too small even for a reduced orchestration, the first staged performance in Australia for more than half a century (the last was Sir Benjamin Fuller’s Royal Grand Opera Company with Florence Austral as Isolde) was mounted in the CONCERT HALL Of the SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE with the platform specially converted. However, the set placed enormous limitations on Neil Armfield’s direction. Brian Thomson swathed all three sides of the platform in fluttery white silk curtains and suspended between them, on silvery metal ropes, a raked transparent perspex ‘drawbridge’ above a shallow pool of real water.

Visually it worked excellently for the first act. Together with the dappled lighting effects of sea and sun and glimpses of the shadowy silhouettes of off-stage sailors, it conjured up quite uncannily the atmosphere of a ship in full sail. But it was a mistake to leave it virtually unchanged for the six hours of the performance. There are no props, except for a see-through plastic box for the goblet and potions in Act 1, a flaming torch in Act 2 and a wash-bowl and cloak on the perspex masquerading as Tristan’s deathbed in Act 3. Jennie Tate’s mediaeval-style costumes, mostly in white or black with King Mark in heraldic red, were magnificent, except for the ludicrous grey long-johns and clown-like floppy white silk shirt poor Tristan had to die in.

Musically it came off very much better under the conductor Stuart Challender, who coaxed and cajoled the Sydney Symphony Orchestra into playing with sonorous splendour after a slightly uncharacteristic start. Thereafter they produced the echt Wagnerian sound, but with no pit it was inevitable that from many seats the orchestra would sound much too loud, whereas it would have been just right in any properly equipped theatre.

The other big personal success was Marilyn Richardson as a radiant, tempestuous, flame-haired Isolde. Her voice has grown fuller and more voluptuous with the years and she was wonderfully convincing as a fiery young Irish princess in the grip of an irresistible passion. Unfortunately the scheduled Tristan, Horst Hoffmann, was ill, and the American tenor William Johns was released from Hamburg engagements to jump in for him. He has a fine voice but on this occasion had very little presence and was a fairly immovable stage lover.

Malcolm Donnelly was a particularly outstanding Kurwenal, his baritone being one of the very few voices on stage never to be drowned by the powerful orchestra. His German articulation was in true Wagnerian tradition and his characterization splendid. Bernadette Cullen was a most simpatica Brangaene; her off-stage Watch Call with its beautifully spun tones rang out truly and clearly. And Donald Shanks’s fruity bass and tall stature made him a born King Mark.


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256 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 430 MByte (MP3)
A production by Neil Armfield