Tristan und Isolde

Charles Mackerras
Welsh National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
6 March 1993
New Theatre Cardiff
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanJeffrey Lawton
IsoldeAnne Evans
BrangäneDella Jones
KurwenalRichard Paul Fink
König MarkePeter Rose
MelotJohn Harris
Ein junger SeemannPhilip Lloyd-Evans
Ein HirtPeter Hoare
SteuermannPhilip Lloyd-Evans
The Independent

SIR CHARLES Mackerras led an inspirational Tristan und Isolde in Cardiff on Saturday. Nothing less will do, of course. An uninspired Tristan is no Tristan at all; great performances of this piece are not manufactured, they evolve. You don’t counterfeit Wagner’s eternal longing. But I do believe Mackerras came close to a great Tristan on Saturday. One could feel that very special alchemy in the first tentative soundings of the love-potion motif, and in the yawning fermatas – the still, silent voids which already symbolise the gulf between Tristan and Isolde. Mackerras was at once spacious and urgent.

It is the sustained rapture of this supreme score, a sense of the infinite as well as the immediate, that eludes all but the most gifted few. Mackerras and his heroic WNO orchestra were gripping and infinitely flexible in both action and introspection. As overwhelming in their way as the tumultuous physical releases, the never-quite-fulfilled climaxes (and in the New Theatre’s grateful acoustic those climaxes overwhelm the audience, not the singers) were the long searching wind solos – not least among them Wagner’s eloquent bass clarinet – guiding our way in to the darkest recesses of the opera’s interior world.

That interior world, the psycho- dramatic core of this most intimate epic, is supremely testing of any producer and designer. Yannis Kokkos served both functions here in a simple expressive unity. His modest show is not so much designed as sculpted, a degree of movement achieved in the sensuous sweep of a sail or wall or ramp; light, colour, texture play their part and his characters are figures in that abstract landscape. Kokkos has spoken of striving for a kind of ‘spiritual choreography’ – meaning that he gives his singers the freedom of stillness. Act 2, the opera’s still centre, the illusory ‘night of love’, is simply achieved through a series of slow ‘dissolves’, the lovers variously entwined in rather beautiful portrait-like poses. A double- proscenium hints at a kind of double-perspective, most effective in Act 1, where Isolde views Tristan at the rudder of the ship through a gauze of unreality – so near, yet so far. After drinking the fateful love-potion (where Kokkos has them quite literally awaking as from a deep sleep), the gauze flies out. Paradoxically, the potion-induced illusion suddenly achieves a frightening clarity.

Anne Evans was singing her first Isolde, here, Jeffrey Lawton his first Tristan. Neither could have given more of themselves. Evans easily surpassed anything I have previously heard from her. Her singing has been enriched, intensified by experience. She was always a textbook singer, making the most of a modest instrument, but she is singing more on the emotion now. Her generous, womanly portamentos embraced the line, the small house flattered her determined but unspectacular top. She was proud, ardent, moving. Lawton’s Tristan could hardly have made more of his attributes, either. The heldentenor colour is authentic, the sound less than beautiful, though the placing of key phrases, the sensitivity and humility of his lyric singing in Act 2 could almost have had one thinking it was. His Third Act was courageous, unstinting, with Richard Paul Fink the most effective and fresh-voiced Kurwenal. Della Jones’s incisive, impassioned Brangane merits more than this brief mention, as does Peter Rose’s King Marke, a handsome voice of natural compassion.

A special WNO evening, then: the sense of shared experience in the house was palpable as the light faded on Isolde’s Liebestod, leaving the image of her white dress on the retina and Wagner’s orchestra to sign off in quiet sublimation.

EDWARD SECKERSON | Tuesday 16 February 1993


A proud Welsh ‘Tristan’

It has come as something of a surprise to most of the critics that Welsh National Opera’s new production of Tristan und Isolde (February 13)—its first since the legendary performances with Linda Esther Gray as a hugely promising young Isolde conducted by Reginald Goodall in 1979—restores to British audiences a core work absent from the repertory of any British company since 1985, when ENO borrowed Gotz Friedrich’s (disappointingly uncontroversial) Netherlands Opera staging for Goodall’s last stage performances of Wagner’s sublime musicdrama. The reasons for these Tristan-less years are manifold, but one is blindingly self-evident: the aftermath of Thatcher’s so-called economic miracle which has reduced most British opera companies to a level of penury at which the contemplation of Wagner’s mature, five-hour-in-the-theatre operas has become almost unthinkable. Covent Garden has made do with a cut-price, second-hand, cast-off touring version of Friedrich’s Berlin Ring; its Bill Bryden Parsifal has proved unrevivable, while the projected Rings of Scottish Opera and English National Opera have been, respectively, abandoned mid-way or scrapped altogether before reaching the drawing board. The huge performing costs have meant that new productions of Parsifal by both WNO and ENO have never been revived beyond their first run. Neither of ENO’s productions of Tristan und Isolde achieved a single revival. Scottish Opera cancelled their announced Tim Albery staging last season and the Royal Opera’s promised Harry Kupfer Inszenierung—intended for WNO’s Isolde, Anne Evans—was dropped for reasons which remain unclear: finance obviously was a factor, but the Royal Opera’s music director also hinted that the opera could not be cast adequately at international level, an observation that cannot have endeared him to Miss Evans, Bayreuth’s BrUnnhilde these past four summers, who had initially turned WNO’s offer down in order to make her debut as Isolde with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden. (Her consolation prize, or rather ours and the Royal Opera’s management, is a pair of WNO Gastspiele at the ROH on the 19th and 23rd of this month.)

In the event, it was probably propitious that Evans was able to make her first appearances as Isolde in the comparatively intimate surroundings of Cardiff’s New Theatre under the eye of a conductor, Charles Mack erras, with whom she has had a long and fruitful professional relationship—her early career as a member of the Sadler’s Wells/English National Opera company coincided with Mackerras’s musical directorship. The comparatively static production style preferred by Yannis Kokkos—in his British debut—must have helped her, too, for she has made no secret of the fact that the physical demands of Kupfer’s Bayreuth Ring production were as challenging as Wagner’s very exacting music. Those who complain that today’s interpreters of Briinnhilde and Isolde lack the vocal power of Flagstad and Nilsson might like to remind themselves that those great ladies did not have to contend with the directorial demands of a Harry Kupfer. (Does anyone remember the fuss Mme Nilsson made about Peter Hall’s—yes, Peter Hall’s!—Tristan production at Covent Garden in 1970?).

This is not to suggest that Kokkos’s production represents a return to the bad, old stand-and-deliver acting style, of which a substantial proportion of contemporary Wagnerites—champions of the empty-headed, idea-free Metropolitan Opera Ring staging by Otto Schenk—still remain enamoured. Indeed, as designer he provides a simple, even handsome framework for the internalized drama of Tristan und Isolde. One could legitimately complain of the unnecessary barrier he erects between the performers and the audience with a gauze dividing the interior of Isolde’s chamber and the open deck of the boat— this is an idea, intelligent in theory, which simply does not work in practice. It distances Brangane’s delivery of Isolde’s humiliating summons to Tristan. The gauze, a favourite producer’s device in the 1970s, has long passed its sell-by date in 1993. The virtues of Kokkos’s staging may outweigh, for some, the lack of a coherent intellectual concept for this drama of the mind in which action is minimal and almost incidental to Wagner’s application of Schopenhauer’s nihilistic philosophy to his personal romantic dilemmas. (Wagner conceived Tristan und Isolde during the period-1854 onwards—when his marriage to Minna Planer was beginning to break down and he had fallen in love with a married woman, Mathilde Wesendonck. By the time of Tristan’s premiere in 1865, he had cuckolded his musical champion and Tristan’s first conductor. Hans von Billow, and his first child, Isolde, by Cosima von Billow—the daughter of Franz Liszt—had been born. With monstrous tactlessness, Wagner first read the opera’s libretto, his guiltridden hymn to adulterous love, with all three women present!)

At least Kokkos spares us a ‘biographical’ interpretation after the manner of Tony Palmer’s ludicrous Scottish Opera Turandot (1984), in which the composer and his lover(s) are identified with the opera’s principal characters. Unfortunately, however, his bright ideas, outlined in the WNO programme, about the light-and-dark, day-and-night, love-and-death symbolism which suffuses both the text and music of Tristan, barely register on stage. The best one can say of Kokkos is that he never offends against the spirit of the work, and he presents his singer-actors in a space which permits them to articulate both words and music with exceptional clarity and to recreate living characters on stage. No new light is shed on Tristan. Some will prefer it that way.

Charles Mackerras, whose conservative theatrical tastes are well documented, will have expected the WNO management to engage an uncontroversial, noninterventionist producer and he can be well pleased that the staging offered not the slightest distraction from his, and his cast’s, music-making. This was a Tristan—Mackerras’s first in Britain—diametrically opposed to the broadly phrased, incandescent and almost unbearably intense interpretation of the late Reginald Goodall, although his extremely measured tempo for the Prelude—the least successful part of the performance—initially suggested emulation of a conductor with whom he was often out of sympathy. Later the dramatic momentum of Wagner’s long paragraphs acquired tremendous, thrilling musical sweep, as Mackerras scrupulously observed Wagner’s tempo markings. Indeed, although the orchestral playing was occasionally uncomfortably loud—as it will almost inevitably be in this smallish theatre—I don’t think I have ever heard a Tristan in which the singers seemed at once so integrated into the orchestral sound and yet were never, well, hardly ever, overwhelmed by it. Mackerras’s interest in the stylistic history of music in performance undoubtedly informed this highly individual and, for me, enthralling account of this wondrous score. Not all of my colleagues shared this view of the conductor or, for that matter, the opera—the Editor wrote a withering attack on the composer in his Times review!—but, Mackerras’s Tristan was a triumph by his own lights. So, too, was the achievement of the cast, a dedicated ensemble, all of them singing the opera for the first time. If Anne Evans’s heart-stopping Isolde takes pride of place, that is in the nature of the role itself and the sense that this was the culmination of the soprano’s progress through the roll-call of Wagner’s great soprano parts—from the heroine of Der fliegende Hollander to the anti-heroine of Parsifal, she has sung them all. Isolde, more than any of them in my view, has been waiting for her essentially lyrical voice to reveal beauties in the music which even her most illustrious predecessors have missed.

Since Evans began to assault the Everest of the Wagnerian soprano’s territory with her first attempts at Brfinnhilde in the mid-1980s WNO Ring, it has become almost obligatory to preface praise for this intensely musical singer with the caveat that her voice is not of traditional Heldensopran proportions. But exactly how old is the tradition of the Flagstad-Nilsson heavyweight in performances of the Ring and Tristan? It seems significant to me that one of the most famous early Isoldes and Brtinnhildes, LiIli Lehmann, continued to sing coloratura roles such as Constanze, the Queen of Night, and Norma until quite late in her career, and that in the pre-war period Frida Leider, a Donna Anna and Trovatore Leonora, was regarded by many as Flagstad’s superior as an interpreter of Isolde. That her voice was less voluminous is obvious even from records—and her top Bs and Cs in her 1928 and 1929 recordings of Isolde’s Narration and Curse and the love duet with Melchior, when Leider was only 40, were nothing like as sustained as Evans’s in Cardiff at the age of, well, a few more years than that. Evans sang the entire part with a consistent beauty of tone, a profound understanding of the shape of the long Wagnerian phrase—even when she needed to snatch more breaths than, ideally. the music suggests—and a staying power which even took me, an extravagant admirer of this artist, by surprise. She has learned important lessons about dynamic gradation in Wagner from Goodall, her mentor in the conductor’s latter years, which have turned her into arguably the most faithful interpreter of Wagner’s musical instructions in living memory. She may still not satisfy those who wish to be left breathless by the proximity of a huge, vibrating Wagnerian voice, but, for my money, at present, there is no Isolde to match her. (Time will tell if Waltraud Meier, the would-be soprano on whom Bayreuth is staking its lot in its new Tristan this summer, is the answer to every Wagnerian’s prayer.) By her side, Jeffrey Lawton incarnated a moving, almost frighteningly committed Tristan—the pain of his last act monologues was harrowingly ‘real’— but I am less enthusiastic about the fundamental quality of his voice than most of my colleagues. While admiring the baritonal gravity of the sound in the middle register—though not the rather gravelly timbre—I found Lawton’s attempts at the stratosphere strained, constricted, unsteady, uncomfortable on the ear: all the vices critics complain about in more famous contemporary Wagnerians. That Lawton uses his vocal limitations to dramatic advantage, however, is undeniable and I suspect that Tristan will prove a more marketable role than his Siegfried, for he cuts a grand, noble figure, entirely appropriate to the fated knight of King Mark’s court. His royal master was beautifully sung with a resonant basso can tante by the young Peter Rose—as yet he does not look old enough to be this Tristan’s uncle, but, no matter. His promise as a Wagner bass is immense. Richard Paul Fink’s Kurwenal was superbly—if relentlessly loudly—sung and the singers of the smaller parts were all well up to WNO standards. (John Harris was a tenor Melot; personally, I prefer a baritone). Of Della Jones’s Brangane it is hard to write, because there is a fierce commitment to both music and drama which shines out from everything she does on stage. That, in essence, is the problem, for Brangane is one of opera’s most self-effacing—even self-abasing—roles and Jones’s imposing temperament is not exactly attuned to playing second fiddle (an occupational hazard rarely experienced, perhaps, by the born Rossini mezzo).

Her singing, too, had more than a hint of the Italianate, with its sharp breaks in the middle and chest registers, which did damage to Brangane’s highly integrated vocal line, but the bright, soprano-ish quality of her top register sounded ideally suited to Brangane’s most famous music, the hauntingly sensuous warning to the lovers which dissects their langorous duet. That, at least, was immaculately sung. In sum, then, this Tristan was a musical achievement of which WNO can be justly proud, and one which can only grow in stature as the run progresses. I can’t wait to hear it at Covent Garden. I suspect that Wagnerians will have to murder to get a ticket.

Hugh Canning | April 1993

The Spectator

Love’s dream

Although I count myself a committed Wagnerian, a little worm of scepticism has always wriggled irritatingly into my experi- ence of Tristan und Isolde. I have no reser- vations about the blazing genius of the score and nothing but admiration for its construction and theatrical effectiveness: it’s just that the sort of love it shows is completely alien to me. Perhaps my pas- sions have been unlucky ones (well, they have, actually, if you want to know), but could somebody explain to me this melting- into-the-oneness-of-eternal-night stuff? What’s the big attraction? Can’t they get over it, talk about something more interest- ing? Where are Tristan’s smelly feet and Isolde’s irritating remarks at breakfast, where are their mothers-in-law? In Cosi fan tutte or Pelleas et Melisande, that level of the world is, in a sense, acknowledged and incorporated; but in Tristan, love stays hung up on the cornier, higher-falutin’ pages of Schlegel and Novalis — the Beat poets of early German Romanticism.

I believe that Wagner knew this full well: he was writing a wish-fulfilment fantasy, as he admitted in a letter to Liszt: ‘Since I have never enjoyed in life the true happi- ness of love, I shall raise a monument to this most beautiful of all dreams, in which from beginning to end, this love shall for once be completely fulfilled.’ In other words, don’t believe a word of it. Of course, what finally emerged is somewhat more complicated than that, but I still feel that the only interpretative approach that could involve me in Tristan’s scenario would be one which suggested that the lovers were both stark raving bonkers living in a dream world and destroying both themselves and everyone around them in the process; enslaved to the quest, I sup- pose, for the ultimate orgasm of death. Good luck to them and good riddance.

Welsh National Opera’s new production of the piece takes a more conventional line. Tristan and Isolde are right and the head- masterly King Mark, who lectures them more in sorrow than in anger, is wrong. Yannis Kokkos’s staging and designs are simple, tactful and tasteful, using plain colours and subtle lighting in the manner of Appiah and Wieland Wagner. No period kitsch, no swinging light-bulbs: this is a pro- duction considerate to the physical difficul- ty of singing Wagner (vide Birgit Nilsson’s famous claim that the secret of her success was a pair of flat shoes), thoroughly rehearsed and plausibly acted. There may be a lot more to say about the opera, but Kokkos avoids bathos and is never preten- tious. Such qualities are not to be despised.

If Sir Charles Mackerras is in the pit, you can be sure of one thing: you will not be bored. Occasionally I felt his boundless enthusiasm and energy ran away with him a bit here, and there were passages (such as the Liebestod) when he could have kept the band down more — but how wonderfully he conveyed the manic feverishness of the rest of the third act, how well he sustained the tension through the second act, and how bravely his orchestra manned the entire stormy journey (despite a couple of crew overboard in the Prelude).

What a cast he had at the helm! On paper, the list had looked promising, but I was unprepared for the sheer accomplish- ment of what was delivered. Peter Rose sang Mark beautifully, Richard Paul Fink was properly rougher-edged as Kurwenal, Della Jones was her usual fruitily vivid self as Brangaene (sadly short of breath in ‘En- s= wachend’, however). But Anne Evans and Jeffrey Lawton, both making their debuts in the title roles, were something more than excellent. Neither has the fqll (i.e. superhuman) Wagnerian armoury which perhaps only Leider, Flagstad and Melchior have in recorded memory pos- sessed. Evans hasn’t much steel in her top register and Lawton doesn’t command the warmth and colour with which Domingo may one day be able to invest Tristan’s music. But could one ask for more? The richness of Evans’s middle register, the absolute security of her intonation, the impeccable diction, the elegant stage pres- ence and command of gesture, the fact that unlike so many of her sisters she truly sings the role — all this was magnificent. The nuances will blossom, I am sure, and per- haps confidence will allow a touch more savagery — the terrifying passage at the beginning of Act Two when Isolde throws down the torch and you realise that the woman has finally hit Flip City, gone Awol or whatever, was one moment which would benefit from it.

Jeffrey Lawton is not Evans’s equal as a musician, but the sense of someone giving his goddam all for something above him was humbling. Forget Ranulph Fiennes’s frostbitten trek across the Antarctic: here was real heroism. This Tristan was short on sensuality but big on everything else, and the hysteria of his death-throes was grabbed and held with ball-breaking deter- mination. Well done that man.

The most moving episode of the evening — a great performance of one of Wagner’s masterpieces, a rare and unforgettable event — came at the curtain calls, when Evans and Lawton spontaneously flung themselves into each other’s arms. This was not a bit of luvvy Oscar-winner smarm, but the true love of comrades, inspired, I guess, by a mixture of delight, relief and gratitude. After all that phony love in the opera, it was odd to see the real thing again.

Rupert Christiansen | 20 FEBRUARY 1993

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Broadcast (BBC)
A production by Yannis Kokkos