Tristan und Isolde

Fergus Sheil
Wide Open Opera Chorus
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra
30 September 2012
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre Dublin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanLars Cleveman
IsoldeMiriam Murphy
BrangäneImelda Drumm
KurwenalBrett Polegato
König MarkeManfred Hemm
MelotEugene Ginty
Ein junger SeemannEamonn Mulhall
Ein HirtOwen Gilhooly
SteuermannGavan Ring
Irish Times

IT WAS the quick-witted Rossini who suggested that Wagner has good moments but bad quarters of an hour. And, to be fair, the passing of time can become a real issue when a Wagner performance is not going well. As another sharp commentator pointed, there are time-filling issues for the singers, too. “Not appearing ridiculous,” wrote Virgil Thomson, “while they stand around waiting for their emotions to be described by the orchestra has always been the acting problem of Wagnerian singers.”

Yes, there is killing in Tristan und Isolde. But violent death seems almost incidental in the opera’s scheme of the inevitable. We’re dealing with impossible love, at first unwelcome and resisted, then, courtesy of a love-potion, as full-on as you can imagine. What the singers do is think out loud, and emote. And it takes four hours of music to reach the final death and transfiguration.

Wide Open Opera’s production would seem at first sight to be both implausible and impossible. The company is new, and this Tristan, its first production, only got the green light of funding – more than €600,000, surely a record for a first grant – from the Arts Council six months ago.

Six of the nine roles are taken by Irish singers, the conductor – WOO’s artistic director Fergus Sheil – is Irish, too, the RTÉ NSO made a welcome return to the opera pit, and Yannis Kokkos’s two-decades-old, tried and tested production – disarmingly simple, but highly effective – was hired in from Welsh National Opera, with Peter Watson directing the revival.

The opening night was a triumph all round. Kerry soprano Miriam Murphy was a vocally resplendent Isolde. Her voice has a natural Wagnerian amplitude, enabling her to ride some of the climaxes as though she hadn’t even had to move out of first gear. Her tone was firm (not a hint of wobbly Wagnerian vibrato), her intonation true, her declamation penetrating, her handling of the closing Liebestod simply thrilling.

Swedish tenor Lars Cleveman was a slightly introverted Tristan, with sometimes a lightness of delivery that, erroneously as it turned out, suggested he mightn’t have the full vocal heft for the role. As a wounded man in Act III he even managed to believably suggest the frailty of a man close to death, making his reinvogoration on Isolde’s return all the more effective.

Imelda Drumm’s Brangäne was compassionate and concerned, Brett Polegato’s Kurwenal impressively sturdy, Manfred Hemm’s King Marke authoritatively noble, and the smaller roles were all well taken.

Fergus Sheil conducted as to the manor born, paced the music with sensitive care, secured near-perfect balances between voices and orchestra, and coaxed from the RTÉ NSO some of the finest playing I’ve ever heard from them in the opera pit. A Tristan und Isolde to cherish.

Michael Dervan | 01 10 2012

There’s an understandable reason why this production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is the first one to be performed in Ireland since 1912. With an approximate running time of four hours, an extensively dramatic plot line, and it’s notoriously difficult and demanding vocal roles, it was be a totally acceptable decision for any opera company to choose something slighty less daunting in its place. So the new Irish Opera company Wide Open Opera I feel deserves credit for even attempting this gargantuan work. Directed by Yannis Kokkos, and originating from a production be Welsh national Opera, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store!

Conductor Fergus Sheil, along with our very own and very wonderful RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, opens Act I with a wonderfully atmospheric prelude, as the curtain rises to reveal what is a minimalist, grey and unprovoking set. As the plot begins to move, our lead vocalists make themselves known. Isolde is sung by the Kerry born Miriam Murphy. With a CV including the likes of ROH Covent Garden and Glyndebourne on Tour, her’s is not a name to be snubbed. She is joined by Tristan, sung by Lars Cleveman whom also has an impressive back catalogue, having appeared in Wagner’s home of Bayreuth to sing the title role of Tannhauser. The opening act is credible, if a little static in its staging with very little dramatic action or general movement. Making an appearance are a very strong chorus, who appear musically only far too briefly in this opera. Ms. Murphy proves her worth vocally as Isolde, as does Laois woman Imelda Drumm in the role of Brangane, providing some of the most believable acting of the evening.

As we delve into Act II, the demands are even greater for our power couple Tristan and Isolde, and as the stakes are raised, cracks begin to appear. During what is intended to be a blistering love scene, it is brought to light that the pair portraying these two lustful lovers share absolutely no sexual chemistry, and become intensely awkward in moments. This was not helped in the slightest by the apparent refusal of director Kokkos to allow the singers to move in any dramatic fashion, allowing any sense of love, lust or passion between the pair to disappear entirely, and where is Tristan und Isolde without passion, lust and love? Thankfully, the arrival of the wonderful Manfred Hemm as Kind Mark and Eugene Ginty as Melot provided a most needed saving grace to this scene. Powerful and passionate, the pair salvaged what was left of Act II, proving themselves most worthy of these difficult vocal roles.

Act III, which includes the finale, brought to light a hidden star in the form of Mr. Brett Polegato as Tristan’s faithful servant Kurwenal. Drawing you in entirely, he managed to transform the start of the third act into what it’s truly supposed be be- a dramatic, passionate love story. However, beside this power house of a man, the voice of Cleveman is utterly lost, as he struggles to compete with the very strong orchestra. As we near the end of this scene, drama escalates with much help from Polegato (Kurwenal) and Ginty (Melot) into an encapsulating fight scene, and the eventual death of Tristan. The death which sends Isolde into despair, unconvincingly portrayed by Ms. Murphy until the very last moment, when she suddenly bursts forth with the passion she required all along to sing of her lover’s death, and prediction of her own, ending the evening on a high.

This production of Tristan und Isolde , although lacking in aspects, heralds a new era of Opera in Ireland. When such a production can flourish, as it did with seats selling well, in place of the typical ‘Opera’s Famous Moments’ concerts, it at least gives us hope that the art might stay alive. We certainly have here a step forward for Ireland’s opera scene, and some fresh new faces of opera production that certainly require watching in the future.


When I found out the opera I had volunteered myself to review was not only in German but also five hours in length, I considered handing the tickets back. Five hours is quite a long time to do anything continuously, so for all but the most seasoned opera fans, a full length Tristan und Isolde must sound daunting. However I am so glad I thought better of not attending as Tristan und Isolde, the most famous of Richard Wagner’s operas, was a powerful production performed with incredible skill and ambition.

Among European capital cities, Dublin is rather deprived of opportunities to see fully staged operas. It has been almost 50 years since the last production of Tristan und Isolde was in Ireland, and those who had been waiting were not disappointed by the quality of this revival of the Welsh National Opera production by Wide Open Opera, with the support of RTÉ’s National Symphony Orchestra. A quick flick through trusty Wikipedia informs me that this opera is famous for “Wagner’s advanced use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension” none of which I understand at all. Luckily I didn’t need to in order to find the evening magical.

The story itself, or at least it’s heroine Isolde, is Irish. We quickly learn that before the opera begins, Tristan had killed Isolde’s fiancée and sent his severed head back to her. Charming. She, being the lead in an opera, gets over this and becomes caught up in this damned love affair with the man described by his male best friend as “the wonder of the world, Tristan”.

Across three acts, there are handmaids, kings, sexy time, magic spells, far flung lands and some backstabbing mates. The singing, particularly that of lead soprano Miriam Murphy as Isolde was moving and powerful. She handled the famously difficult Wagnerian arias with technical skill and captivating emotion. Brangäne the handmaid, played by another Irish woman Imelda Drumm, had impeccable acting skill on stage and a wonderful voice to match. Another stand out performance came from baritone Brett Polegato as Kürwenal. It was a conversation about his performance which led to me being introduced to barihunks. Click at your own risk.

The only real problems with the production were the first part of the third act, which is simply a very slow part in the opera, and some of the weaker parts of the purchased productions – like the costumes, sets and stage directions. However you should forgive them their zealous use of velvet and rush to Bord Gáis Energy Theatre to catch the last remaining production this weekend. You too will be converted. Then buy the picnic basket for 2nd interval. Posh & yummy.

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Sarah Murphy | Thursday 4th October 2012

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A production by Yannis Kokkos