Tristan und Isolde

Asher Fisch
West Australian Symphony Orchestra Chorus
St George’s Cathedral Consort
West Australian Symphony Orchestra
19 August 2018
Concert Hall Perth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanStuart Skelton
IsoldeGun-Brit Barkmin
BrangäneEkaterina Gubanova
KurwenalBoaz Daniel
König MarkeAin Anger
MelotAngus Wood
Ein junger SeemannPaul O’Neill
Ein HirtPaul O’Neill
SteuermannAndrew Foote

A fabulous musical night for Perth

Wagner’s operas have not featured much on the Perth opera scene, so a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde was more than welcome. There was a fully staged version here twelve years ago, conducted by Lionel Friend; the orchestra on that occasion was the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and so it was again this time. They were great last time, but superlative here. Asher Fisch, Principal Conductor of WASO, is also well known in Australia as the conductor of the second Adelaide Ring Cycle (2004), so a major Wagnerian event seemed a natural outcome.

The sound created by WASO in the almost perfect acoustic of the Perth Concert Hall was uniquely thrilling. After a slightly hard-edged start, the orchestra coalesced into the completely absorbing sound world created by Wagner; one could hear the proverbial pin drop in every silent passage. All sections of the orchestra contributed equally to a gripping soundscape. One is compelled however to mention at least the wondrous cor anglais solo in the opening of Act 3, played by Leanne Glover, the flutes (Andrew Nicholson and Mary-Anne Blades), Sarah Bowman’s harp, the brass, strings, everyone really. Not just the overwhelming large moments but also the subtle small ones, such as the rippling sounds of spring at the beginning of Act 2, were captivating. Fischer was well across the totality of the work’s architecture.

Tristan und Isolde has so little action, so there was little need of props, costumes and extraneous effects. It is so rooted in orchestral playing and singing for its success, that a concert performance seems a perfectly reasonable choice. The most significant theatrical element otherwise might be said to be the acting chops of the singers. In 2006, the biggest problem was the apparent indifference of the two eponymous soloists to each other; this was not the case here, even if park and bark was essentially the order of the day.

Heldentenor Stuart Skelton is well known to Australian audiences, although he is now truly an inhabitant of the global stage. A memorable Siegmund in Adelaide in 2004, he has continued to flourish. His Tristan was an unflagging, glorious lighthouse of Wagnerian singing, with inexhaustible power, vibrant resonance allied to warmth, subtlety and grace, and committed dramatic expression, with particularly beautiful singing at the end of Act 2.

German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, a recently celebrated Salome, was embarking here, it seems, on her first full length Isolde. As such, but also in its own right, it was a remarkable performance. After some slightly rough passages right at the beginning, she warmed up into producing thrilling high notes and shades of emotion, displaying convincing ecstasy in the appropriate moments. She flagged somewhat in Act 2, but was back on top of things in the third act, concluding with a beautifully shaped and heart-wrenching Liebestod.

Brangäne was sung by Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Gubanova who, in Act 1, produced a well-supported, nicely rounded tone although, oddly, when singing a cappella from offstage in Act 2, a wide vibrato opened up that was barely evident previously. Nevertheless she managed well in this rather ambiguous role. Estonian bass Ain Anger was a wonderful King Marke, with rich resonant tone and confident deep notes, as well as cutting a noble figure. Kurwenal was also well sung by Boaz Daniel, with a well-deployed, relatively light baritone, displaying the staunch loyalty required. Smaller parts were taken by Australian singers. Angus Wood, who has in past oscillated between tenor and baritone roles, was a suitably nasty Melot, Paul O’Neill was a mellifluous shepherd and Andrew Foote a rousing steersman.

The performance was rewarded with a standing ovation, not a common sight in Perth. In the enduring battle between opera adminstrations in Australia (“Nobody wants to sit through Wagner”) and the opera-going public (Wagnerian devotees and those who’d like to know what it’s like), this was a decided win for the latter. If we can continue to hear performances like this, there can be no doubt that Wagner will gain a firmer foothold on the Australian stage.

Sandra Bowdler | 18 August 2018


What a way for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra to ring in its 90th year, and what a joyful, astonishing night at the opera. With the marvellous Asher Fisch at the podium and a top drawer cast that belongs on any world stage, this concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was a night hotly anticipated – and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, one could say it exceeded expectations, particularly as the scheduled Isolde – the very fine Eva-Maria Westbroek – withdrew due to illness earlier this month, a real disappointment to her fans. Her replacement, the German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, was far from a shabby last-minute stand in. Rather, she gave an extraordinarily complete portrayal, all the more remarkable given that this was only her second go at Isolde.

With an intriguingly girlish timbre allied to an instrument of substantial weight and steel, Barkmin’s Isolde was every bit the proud, Irish princess in the first act. It’s always a joy to hear a singer in their native tongue, and the soprano’s linguistic authority made every syllable count in the Perth Concert Hall. Although some climactic notes didn’t come quite that easily, and intonation was just shy of the mark in a few instances, Barkmin more than compensated for it with her assured dramatic instincts and innate ability to give shape and point to phrases. She also has a solid lower register and sings with a keen musicality, meaning any wishes for greater tonal refulgence were put to the side.

The first act belonged entirely to Barkmin, Isolde’s Narrative and Curse (where she describes how she was unable to slay Tristan, the man who has murdered her betrothed), a self-flagellating mixture of shame, rage and grief. The way she spits out “now I’m servant to the vassal” with a shiver of disgust will stick in your mind. A surprisingly pacy reading from Fisch helped Barkmin put her own stamp on the Liebestod – rather than an Isolde consumed by her wondrous visions, this was a deeply human account that felt frank and conversational, the beatific smile on Barkmin’s face signalling an end to grief and the discovery of joy.

Barkmin’s Tristan was no slouch either. A frisson ran through the room when Stuart Skelton strode onstage, hailing the return of an Australian artist who’s had great success abroad. The tenor seems only to grow in stature with each assumption of the role, and his stage experience translated well to this concert setting – this was a considered dramatic portrayal as well as a vocally thrilling one. He achieved an easy rapport with his loyal servant, Kurwenal, and nailed the mixture of concerted aloofness and courtliness that Tristan puts on to conceal his true feelings about Isolde.

The man cuts no corners, singing crucial phrases with the power they deserve. With near unflagging stamina (the top went ever so slightly awry for a moment in that punishing final act) and complex colour, Skelton is a Tristan for the ages. No unsubtle sledgehammer though, he does a mean pianissimo, as was on abundant display in the love duet of Act II. Done in full, this middle act can too often feel like a middle child – a bit ignored as it’s (wrongly) considered not particularly interesting. What Skelton and Barkmin did was restore its urgency, building painfully to the long sought for climax so cruelly disrupted by Kurwenal. The pair’s tender lyricism and aching admissions of desire stopped time, while Skelton’s masterful handling of the final act was utterly engrossing. With Fisch and the orchestra in inspired partnership, the fevered hallucinations of Act III left one shattered.

The rest of the cast rose to the fearsome standard set by the central pair, particularly Ekaterina Gubanova’s committed Brangäne. In the Christa Ludwig school, her lush, port-coloured mezzo was utter bliss, particularly when wielded with so much musicality and understanding of drama. Having performed the role all around the world – she appeared opposite Skelton’s Tristan in the Met’s 2016 production – Gubanova knows her stuff and it shows. Sung from the gallery, Brangäne’s warning during the lover’s tryst provoked sighs of delight from the audience, while her nuanced, eloquent portrayal made her a perfect foil for Isolde.

Boaz Daniel is a much experienced Kurwenal, who audiences will remember from the Sydney Symphony’s concert presentation of Tristan in 2015. Deftly effective as Tristan’s confidante, he brought rich tone and sympathetic stage presence to the part, bringing him into clearer focus than is often seen elsewhere. His is an honest, forthright Kurwenal that plays off his Tristan well.

After Barkmin, the night’s true discovery was Ain Anger’s Marke. It’s a luxurious bass instrument that you could quite happily take a bath in, and the Estonian bass was nothing short of brilliant as the wronged King of Cornwall. Naturally imposing, with oodles of presence, he showed audiences a man who has discovered an irreparable fracture in his world. His questioning of Tristan was deliberately done and performed without overt emotion, but all the more affecting for it – this is a man whose iron grip on self-discipline is the only thing left to him. Fissures in this steely surface soon showed, pointing to something that hadn’t made itself known to this reviewer in the past. Just as Tristan and Isolde experience the most human, even base emotions, so too does Marke – he is a walking embodiment of humiliation and disappointment in this middle act. Anger’s portrayal of Marke as eminently reasonable made his injury register even more gravely, while his choked admission – he has been forced to spy on his own friend – spoke of profound hurt and was a difficult acknowledgement of his own failings.

The rest of the supporting cast acquitted themselves well – Angus Wood’s suitably slimy Melot, Paul O’Neill’s finely sung sailor and shepherd, and Andrew Foote’s steersman. The chorus had to huddle just offstage, but also turned in fine performances if sometimes lacking in bite and that last bit of blend. But perhaps the real stars of the evening were Asher Fisch and the orchestra, who gave a beautifully shaped, precise reading that was all the more moving for its sense of restraint. Rich in texture and grand in scope, this was an expansively paced reading that built mercilessly in moments of tension. Fish conducted with an innate understanding of the work’s long view – gilded with orchestral detail but subsumed within a larger whole, climaxes here felt earnt, as when Isolde extinguishes her torch or when Tristan thinks he sees the approaching ship.

The most striking element of Fisch’s reading was the sense that the music was continuously unfolding in one line, yet keenly attuned to the drama. Sensitive to his singers’ needs, he nevertheless was not afraid to whip up orchestral thunder when required. Under his baton, O sink hernieder felt painfully intimate, while the Liebestod, although done at a faster clip, achieved a numinous quality that was spell-like. Special mentions must also go to Leanne Glover’s cor anglais solo at the beginning of Act III, which resembled speech in its hypnotic vividness, and Brent Grapes’ stirring, eloquent turn on the Holztrompete, fashioned specially for the event. Plangent woodwinds met string playing of often heart-stopping beauty, while the horns were also on sweet form. Where required, the players stretched aching melodies that only throbbed with greater intensity as time passed. Quite simply, this was magnificent playing of the highest order, rewarded on opening as the audience roared to their feet.

There’s one concert left, and it’s my duty to urge you to get yourself there by any means possible. WASO has never sounded better, and you’ll not encounter this stunning cast again.

Justine Nguyen | August 18, 2018

The West Australian

I was not among those weeping in their seats. Neither was I among those who, having seen it the first night, immediately afterwards bought tickets for this Sunday performance.

But I was there — and knew I was in the presence of greatness. We’re not talking about the opera. That Wagner’s four-hour epic of passion and renunciation, Tristan und Isolde, is a work of genius is self-evident.

The medieval story of star-crossed lovers Cornish knight Tristan and Irish princess Isolde — the former Cornish King Marke’s loyal friend, the latter Marke’s unwilling betrothed — is timeless, while the music, which broke every rule in the book as Wagner strove for artistic and spiritual transcendence, is sublime.

We’re talking about the performers.

WASO principal conductor Asher Fisch is an acclaimed exponent of late-romantic Germanic repertoire and a devoted Wagnerian, whose Ring Cycle recording with the State Opera of South Australia garnered 10 Helpmann Awards.

Here, WASO responded to his every look and gesture with assurance and a passionate, almost erotic, intensity which bound strings, winds and percussion not just to each other but to the tumultuous journeys of leitmotifs and singers alike. There were also the many show-stealing individual contributions, such as Leanne Glover’s ravishing Act II cor anglais solo.

Ah, the singers. Outstanding were Ain Anger’s dignified, humane King Marke, Ekaterina Gubanova as Isolde’s loyal maid, Brangane, and Boaz Daniel as Tristan’s loyal follower, Kurwenal. There were additional contributions by Angus Wood (Melot), Paul O’Neill (Young Sailor/Shepherd), Andrew Foote (Steersman) and a male chorus made up of singers from WASO Chorus and St George’s Cathedral Consort.

But for these two concert performances of Tristan und Isolde celebrating WASO’s 90th year, Fisch’s cast included crucially one of today’s finest Wagner tenors, Australian Stewart Skelton as Tristan, and German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Isolde.

Both possess intelligence, gravitas and the necessary prowess and stamina to negotiate Wagner’s merciless vocal writing.

If Skelton so persuasively brought to life Tristan’s wild imaginings in Act III when, mortally wounded, he is beset by visions of Isolde, he was ecstatically matched by Barkmin’s glorious account of Isolde’s Liebestod. Their love now consummated in death, the longed-for major chord brings the opera to a luminous close.

William Yeoman | 21 August 2018

Daily Review

Since becoming Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of WASO in 2014, Asher Fisch has been assiduously cultivating the orchestra’s sound and profile and ambitiously extending its repertoire and programming. A specialist in German Romantic and post-Romantic opera and symphonic music, he began his career as Barenboim’s assistant at the Berlin Staatsoper, and has since held positions or been a guest conductor with most of the major European and North American opera houses and orchestras. Under his baton (and the sensitive leadership of concertmaster Laurence Jackson) the WASO strings in particular have developed a more sumptuously blended European sound, while the wind and percussion sections (led by many fine individual players) have continued to go from strength to strength.

In terms of programming, Fisch has embarked on a notable series of composer-specific projects with the orchestra, including their Beethoven and Brahms cycles in 2014 and 2015, and ‘Wagner and Beyond’ concerts in 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile, he has invited outstanding international colleagues and friends like Pinchas Zukerman and Garrick Ohlsson to appear with WASO as soloists. The 90th Anniversary Gala concert performances of Tristan und Isolde last Thursday and Sunday were in some ways a culmination of all these strands in Fisch’s work with the orchestra so far, featuring one of the world’s leading heldentenors, Australian Stuart Skelton, as Tristan; German rising-star soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin (pictured above) as Isolde (a last-minute replacement for Eva-Maria Westbroek); and a supporting cast of international specialists in their respective roles, including Russian mezzo Ekaternina Gubanova as Brangäne, Israeli baritone Boaz Daniel as Kurwenal, and Estonian bass-baritone Ain Anger (who has sung Fafner and Hunding in various Ring cycles) as King Marke.

Tristan und Isolde is a watershed both in terms of Wagner’s development and that of the entire history of Western music. Much has been made of the famously ambiguous ‘Tristan-chord’ that opens the prelude and the chromaticism that subsequently pervades the opera, opening the door to the abandonment of tonality by Schoenberg and his followers; but the work’s dispensation with other traditional musical forms and structures like discernible arias, conventional harmonic progression or thematic development, and its constantly changing time-signatures and rhythmic patterns (like the sea that is such a central element in its narrative setting and emotional landscape) – all of this makes it almost like the musical equivalent of free verse. In terms of dramatic content its ethereal setting, minimal plot, static action, emotionally paralysed characters and their increasingly prolonged and tormented monologues anticipate the subsequent theatrical development of Symbolism and Expressionism. Its underlying philosophical and psychological themes also break new ground, whether as a direct expression of Wagner’s reading of Schopenhauer and the latter’s pessimistic twist on German Idealism – which was influenced in turn by a peculiar reading of Buddhism – or as a harbinger of Freud’s imminent discovery of sexuality and the death instinct as the driving forces of the unconscious (unbewusst being one of the last words of the Liebestod sung by Isolde at the end of the opera).

Tristan is thus an aesthetic turning-point in music, opera and drama; a philosophical meditation on the relationship between love and death, being and non-being, knowing and un-knowing, seeing and not-seeing, language and silence (or rather, wordlessness); and a distorted reflection of the composer’s own acts of betrayal, infidelity, spite, resentment, revenge and ingratitude towards almost everyone, including lovers, friends, benefactors, colleagues and (most notoriously) Jews – regarding all of which perhaps we can say that at least in the case of Tristan the truth-content of the work transcended the egregious failings of the artist.

It’s above all on a sonic level (as well imaginatively and conceptually) that I found this concert performance so overwhelming from the moment the cellos began the sighing, soaring, yearning ‘Tristan’ leitmotif that opens the Prelude.

A concert performance thus has much to recommend it as an appropriate form of representation for a work that ultimately challenges the limits of representation itself. As Tristan sings to King Marke, when the latter asks how the pain and shame of his betrayal and jealousy can be explained: ‘O King, that I cannot tell you; and what you ask, that can you never learn’; before going on to invoke an obscure primordial realm of darkness, unconsciousness and non-existence, which he explicitly compares to his mother’s womb, and which he longs to return to by ‘extinguishing’ the light of day, consciousness and ultimately life itself. Hearing Tristan performed without seeing it staged thus allows us to ‘see’ its images with the mind’s eye, much as Tristan ‘sees’ Isolde’s ship (and Isolde herself) arriving in Act Three (even when she arrives in the flesh, he ‘sees’ and ‘hears’ without seeing or hearing her, until finally the two lovers ‘join’ each other in the ecstasy of death). A concert performance thus remains true to the opera’s negative theology or via negativa, in which the sensory world of appearance is seen and known to be an illusion in comparison with the real (while the latter cannot be represented or directly experienced, except in death). It grants us access to the negative vision of ecstasy in the vast Love-Duet in Act Two that lies at the heart of the opera, when the torches in Isolde’s garden are extinguished and the two lovers entwine and merge in a kind of soul-union – not physically (despite the pulsing, thrusting, accelerating and surging moans of the orchestra) but vocally and sonically.

Indeed, it’s above all on a sonic level (as well imaginatively and conceptually) that I found this concert performance so overwhelming from the moment the cellos began the sighing, soaring, yearning ‘Tristan’ leitmotif that opens the Prelude. Quite simply, no conventional staging in an opera house – with the orchestra buried in a covered pit beneath the stage (a technical innovation ironically instigated by Wagner himself) and singers typically framed by a proscenium arch with a fly-tower and wings extending above and to either side of them (and thus all-too-frequently swallowing their voices) – can match the sound of an orchestra (and the singers in front of it) on an open stage in a concert hall (especially one with the acoustics of Perth, widely regarded as the finest in the country) in terms of sheer impact as well as detail. Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the front row of the audience and right in front of Isolde, who sings the lion’s share of Act One; she was later joined on that side of the stage by Tristan for the Love-Duet in Act Two; he returned there for the immense monologue that forms the bulk of Act Three; and Isolde rejoined him there again for his death, and to sing the final Liebestod.

As for the performances: Gun-Brit Barkmin was a thrilling Isolde, her hard bright silver-edged soprano as sharp as a sword but with plenty of depth to support it. A specialist in roles like Salome and Marie in Wozzek, she evoked a youthful but strong-willed Isolde, and this together with the controlled intensity of her acting made the role almost seem like an Expressionist prototype (an impression enhanced by her Louise Brooks-style bob haircut and expressive face and hands). Her voice and characterisation also made for a satisfying contrast with Ekaterina Gubanova’s warm, rich mezzo and compassionate performance as Brangäne in Acts One and Two, especially when the two vocal lines are interrupting or calling and responding to each other. One of the most beautiful passages in the entire opera is Brangäne’s Watch (Habet acht! –‘Take care!’), which she sings during a lull in the Love Duet between Tristan and Isolde in Act Two; and this was memorably staged by having Gubanova appear and sing above and behind most of the audience in the Dress Circle, thus immersing us sonically in the scene.

In many ways this was the most thrilling experience I’ve had from Fisch and WASO so far – as well as one of the most revelatory Wagner experiences I’ve had in my life.

Stuart Skelton is currently at his peak as Tristan, and clearly knows the role like the back of his hand, but still seemed open to a sense of discovery, especially in his evident rapport with Barkmin. The voice is effortlessly powerful (except when effort is required as part of the performance, as it is in Act Three), but perhaps at its most impressive when it softens and caresses like brushed velvet, as it did during the ineffably tender Love Duet. Despite his power, maturity and assurance, he seemed almost to defer to Barkmin’s more impulsive and at times more fragile Isolde, and his emotional desolation and psychological disintegration in Act Three was unbearably heartbreaking. He was ably supported by Boaz Daniel’s rich-voiced Kurwenal, who gave a slightly hammy performance in Act One, but inhabited the role more genuinely and touchingly in Act Three; while Ain Anger in his two crucial appearances as King Marke endowed this difficult role as the wounded but forgiving husband and friend with dignity and pathos, giving a subtle and understated performance – assisted by a magnificent voice – that conveyed the complexity of this character’s feelings.

For me though the hero of the night was Maestro Fisch, whose rendition of the score combined the drive and energy of Kleiber with the control and attention to sensuous beauty of Karajan (to cite just two of the many great conductors of this work), while always remaining in a state of creative rapport (and evident pleasure) with the singers and the orchestra. The sound he coaxed from the WASO strings was ravishing, led by delicate and heartfelt playing from Laurence Jackson, with outstanding contributions from Alexander Millier on bass clarinet and Leanne Glover on cor anglais.

In many ways this was the most thrilling experience I’ve had from Fisch and WASO so far – as well as one of the most revelatory Wagner experiences I’ve had in my life. I’m consumed with curiosity about what Fisch has in store for us next year. A concert performance of Parsifal perhaps? Bring it on.

Humphrey Bower | August 21, 2018

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