Tristan und Isolde

Robin Ticciati
Glyndebourne Festival Opera Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
31 August 2021
Royal Albert Hall London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanSimon O’Neill [act 1/2]
Neal Cooper [act 3]
IsoldeMiina-Liisa Värelä
BrangäneKaren Cargill
KurwenalShen Yang
König MarkeJohn Relyea
MelotNeal Cooper
Ein junger SeemannStuart Jackson
Ein HirtStuart Jackson
SteuermannJohn Mackenzie-Lavansch

Endless love, perfect pace

Robin Ticciati conducts his first Wagner opera, and it’s a revelation

“Now I’ve conducted Tristan for the first time,” the 27-year-old Richard Strauss wrote from Weimar to Wagner’s widow Cosima in 1892, “and it was the most wonderful day of my life”.

Robin Ticciati, over a decade older but still young in terms of his profession, has just crowned his first run of Glyndebourne Tristans with this Proms performance, and I don’t know whether he felt the same on opening night; but it’s clear that with the house’s latest music director a new golden age of Wagner conducting has begun.

You could sense it in the London Philharmonic Orchestra cellos’ opening tone-swell, the perfect, human pacing of the emotional journey unleashed – an unquenchable love-yearning not to be resolved until nearly five hours later – and the light touches of a performance that always moved forward, but never felt rushed. Different indeed from the equally compelling interpretations of Ticciati’s predecessor at Glyndebourne, Vladimir Jurowski, and the slower burn, Toscanini-style, of that other great Anglo-Italian conductor Antonio Pappano.Robin Ticciati and the LPO in Tristan at the PromsOf course the LPO had to be given full rein in the luminous but tricky acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall – reports of its Glyndebourne position onstage, and behind the action, as here, suggest that the sound didn’t travel so well – and with the singers always with their backs to players and conductor, on the built-out apron of the concert platform, there were other problems live. Not of co-ordination – the mark of the long Glyndebourne rehearsal process with a conductor living the opera in every bar – but of balances in the hall, especially if you were sitting to the sides and voices got lost every time they turned away.

Nor were our lovers especially big and refulgent in voice. Finn Miina-Liisa Värelä is more of a lyric than a high-dramatic soprano, warm in the middle register and intelligent in textual meaning; like many Isoldes, she is better equipped for tender love than the vengeful rage of the first act, where Tristan, the killer of her honourable betrothed Morold, is taking her by ship from Ireland to Cornwall to marry his uncle King Marke.

Two Tristans at the PromsIs Tristan a step too far for Simon O’Neill, a tenor who lives more in the head voice than in the baritonal timbre of most interpreters of this insane role who’ve survived the challenges? Last night, it wasn’t clear whether illness or exhaustion saw him conk out before the ultimate challenge of the last act, the proto-Beckett endgame of a man who can’t die from his wound until he’s seen his Isolde again. But three cheers to the Melot and presumably Glyndebourne cover Tristan, Neal Cooper (pictured right with O’Neill in Act Three), who sang Act Three from memory at the side of the stage. He’s performed Tristan in Melbourne, and it’s the kind of reliable voice which makes a performance of the opera possible rather than a flamethrower, but it helped to reinforce the orchestral fever-pitches of a soul nearing death. And with Cooper more in eye-range of Ticciati, you saw the sterling work the conductor does making sure his singers feel supported and together with the orchestra.

If we take the line of Birgit Nilsson, most fearless of Isoldes, that a great singer also has to be a great personality, that would apply more to the lovers’ loyal followers, Karen Cargill as Brangäne and Shenyang’s Kurwenal. Cargill (pictured below with Värelä) has the temperament for the wrathful Isolde, and probably the top notes, too, though like Christa Ludwig she shouldn’t risk it.

Karen Cargill as Brangane in the Glyndebourne TristanYet her reactions in the role were riveting, and she offered the evening’s two most beautiful concordances with incandescent orchestral sounds of the evening – the angelic (proto-Elgar Gerontius style) attempts to calm her mistress in Act One, and the warnings of Act Two, heard through the narcotic love-haze from this remarkable carrying voice high at the back of the hall.

Veteran bass John Relyea’s Marke provided all you need for the dark-hued tortures of the betrayed king – no problems with projection there – and it seemed, right at the start of the action, that Stuart Jackson’s Young Sailor would provide the most Liederish-perfect of unaccompanied offstage solos, until he had the bad luck to end a semitone sharp. It happens.

There were no such intonation problems with any of the instrumentalists. All the woodwind proved superb vocalists – amazing to hear so much of the flute lines from where I was sitting – but Ticciati made the right accolades at the end to bass clarinettist Paul Richards and cor anglais player Sue Bohling. Hurrah for supertitles, too, all too rare a feature at the Proms. Who knows what other Wagnerian adventures lie ahead for the LPO at Glyndebourne? After this minimal concert staging (Daniel Dooner after the famous Lehnhoff production, reworked by Paul Higgins for the BBC Proms), clearly the priority is a new production of Tristan by a top imaginative director, to build on the infinite hard work and sheer love of a phenomenal score on display here.

David Nice | 01 September 2021

Glyndebourne’s Wagner semi-staging is brought to the BBC Proms 2021 and becomes a tale of two Tristans

I will not be the first to remind readers that when Wagner was composing Act III of Tristan und Isolde he wrote to his muse Mathilda Wesendonck: ‘I fear the opera will be banned – unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance – only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad – I cannot imagine it otherwise’. After five performances at Glyndebourne this summer their semi-staging of Tristan came to the BBC Proms and probably drew one of the biggest audiences of a poorly attended season. Certainly for all of Act I and stretches of Act II, it was heading towards being the finest Wagner I have heard at the Royal Albert Hall since Parsifal (with a commanding Petra Lang as Kundry) almost 21 years ago to the day. That was conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and now it was his protégé Robin Ticciati (music director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera) who brought this Tristan to the Proms.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2003 and subsequently revived and would have been seen in its original version had the pandemic not intervened. The orchestra apparently needed to be socially distanced and that would only work if they filled the stage with the singers acting at the front on and around a wide stepped platform. It was infamously reviewed in The Guardian recently as suggesting ‘vanishingly little of Lehnhoff’s staging, and almost nothing of the sets and props, survive’. Director Daniel Dooner then responded: ‘Every move, head-turn, look, intention, expression and subtextual reference in Lehnhoff’s highly detailed regie is there, as is the lighting and all seven of the original props. What isn’t there is simply the set and the costumes.’

My history with this production is that when it was originally revived it was one of the first UK operas transmitted to cinemas; my wife and I didn’t enjoy what we saw and heard so much that we never stayed for the end. That was part of it, another issue might have been problems with the actual relay, but I cannot remember for certain. Lehnhoff was an assistant to Wieland Wagner at Bayreuth in the mid-1960s and – compared to all the recent Tristans I have reviewed which have little to do with Wagner’s original – his semi-abstract staging now looks ultra-traditional despite the occasionally oddity (a rather strange looking masked Stuart Jackson as the Shepherd with his slim tree branch as a staff). There was a rather Star Trek-looking series of arcs giving a time tunnel sense of depth, or perhaps it is as if we were looking into a vortex. This allowed for a series of steps for the characters to move onto, about and off.

It was generally rather static as I remember with little contact between Tristan and Isolde who often just stood side-by-side (socially distanced?) and faced out to the audience to sing, as did most of the others. There was a limited colour palette, mostly a darkish blue and briefly possibly a golden glow (as here at the Proms at the start of Act II). Another issue in 2007 was Robert Gambill and Nina Stemme; I appreciate how fêted Stemme’s Isolde is, but she has not always impressed me (review click here) and Gambill was deeply disappointing. It was never conceived to test anyone’s sanity and Lehnhoff allows us to hear what the protagonists are thinking; though we are not really convinced by the motivation for their actions, nor do they really engage us emotionally. Of course, a lot of this must come from Wagner’s music which explains that which cannot be shown on stage, however something other than a stand-and-deliver approach will always help.

What was seen at Glyndebourne (review click here) seems to have been faithfully recreated on this year’s specially extended Royal Albert Hall concert platform, but I suspect the singers needed to go much further than at Glyndebourne to make their entrances and exits. Changing colours flooded the stage or were replicated on the LED screens to the rear of the orchestra. Tristan and Isolde had appropriate costumes (though not the original 2003 ones) but everyone else was dressed – at best – for a standard concert performance, or – at worst- a rehearsal.

Ticciati kept everything flowing well in the narratives but there was some sense of drift in the bigger dramatic moments. Nevertheless. this flexibility in his tempos was a big plus and Ticciati clearly knows how to slowly build to a climax, cranking up the tension and holding back until the very last moment before he unleashed the total power of the impressive London Philharmonic Orchestra – notable for some incandescent changes of colour – at any of those climaxes. (Kudos to Sue Böhling’s idiomatically plaintive cor anglais amongst many virtuosic solo contributions.) Sadly, the pre-recorded chorus sounded like the ghostly crew in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman though hearing the ‘hunting horns’ and Brangäne’s portentous warnings from the far reaches of the gallery had a visceral effect. (Weirdly, John Mackenzie-Lavansch’s sweet-toned opening ‘Sailor’s Song’ seemed to emanate from the bust of Sir Henry Wood in front of the organ!) What was an issue was that the orchestra was often much too loud threatening to swamp the singers and it did from time to time, especially at the start of Act II.

If the singers have had to combat that wave of sound coming from behind them at Glyndebourne it may explain what befell Simon O’Neill after the first two acts who was announced as having lost his voice. What O’Neill did sing during his sterling Act I and his contribution to one of the finest Act II love duets I have heard showed his prominence as a heldentenor; there was never an ugly sound (of how many Tristans can you say that?), a rare lyricism, wonderful diction and suitably heroic top notes. (For my wife and me it was as if the late great Wagner tenor Alberto Remedios had been resurrected, and for us that is no higher compliment and evidence of how good we thought O’Neill was.) Glyndebourne was fortunate to have Neal Cooper’s fully prepared – off the book – alternative Tristan in the cast as Melot. He sang from the side of the stage whilst a barefooted O’Neill acted Tristan’s third act ravings often slumped on some sheepskin covered bedding as stage director Paul Higgins appeared briefly as Melot and was quickly despatched near the end of the opera. Cooper’s contribution was therefore criticproof and he sounded a stolid, reliable Tristan.

Miina-Liisa Värelä was an honourable Isolde and while her lower register was not particularly strong her high notes were secure if a little pinched. Nevertheless, she brought all the necessary dramatic conviction, focus and energy to the flame-haired ‘wild Irish maid’. Perhaps there is a question mark about her vocal stamina because her Verklärung (Liebestod) was underwhelming.

Once again, I would have preferred the singer of Brangäne to have been Isolde (why does it happen so often?). There was committed and surprisingly nuanced acting from Karen Cargill as the faithful – though meddlesome – servant and her resonant voice had power and great expressivity. There was a very solid ‘supporting cast’, with Shenyang as a rather stentorian Kurwenal, clearly loyal to his master but with little of the old retainer about him, and the sonorous John Relyea was a noble, dignified, deeply hurt, ultimately regretful King Marke.

Jim Pritchard | Royal Albert Hall, London, 31.8.2021

Opera Today

The London Philharmonic rise to epic heights, an inspired conductor … and two Tristans

I’m often left wondering with a great performance of Tristan und Isolde whether the true emotion of the work comes from the orchestra rather than the singers. There were moments during this concert when the London Philharmonic reached such heights of ecstasy in their playing – the astonishing prelude to the music of the love theme which we will later hear in Act II – when you wondered if anything could excel the sheer beauty or opulence of the sound. And yet it did. Wagner deliberately brings even more excessive beauty to the music which will later become the Liebestod; the LPO certainly played it this way, for example, shaped by a conductor, Robin Ticciati, who makes the music smoulder with unrestrained eroticism.

None of the singing really matched the orchestra throughout the entire evening. If you wanted to look to or hear a great solo in this performance you needed to go to a flute, a cor anglais, or a bass clarinet and to the magnificent colours and contours that leapt from the score. Perhaps it sounds this way because Ticciati is so in love with the orchestra and what it can do. You detect this from the beginning; the compelling sweep the cellos have in the prelude, a momentum you want the conductor to keep as the orchestra swells and surges only for it to run out of steam or for Ticciati to suddenly choke it to a halt. He does this so infrequently that when it happens it makes it stand out all the more. One wondered during the Liebesnacht exactly who was in control of the tempo: Ticciati or his Tristan and Isolde. It really didn’t feel like the former. But, did it ultimately matter? The LPO sounded astounding here – incredibly burnished, glorious even, almost as if they were on fire around the lovers. On the other hand, when he took complete control of matters the results could be thrilling. The end of Act II was wonderful; it had tension and drama and he had whipped up a hurricane of fury before the Liebesnacht, too.

Only Ticciati’s Act III prelude, with neither elements of grief nor despair, left an underwhelming impression – although perhaps you need to have the weight of both experience and age to pull this powerful music off. At the moment Ticciati has neither – although perhaps, just perhaps, the tentative opening could be down to circumstances beyond his grasp. T hat same sudden shift wrong-footed Ticciati during Tristan’s madness. How different it would probably have sounded if Simon O’Neill hadn’t withdrawn at the beginning of Act III; instead, the stand-in, Neal Cooper, sounded fresher and less devastating as Ticciati drove the orchestra into a kaleidoscope of symphonic delirium.

In a sense, Simon O’Neill had been pushing his voice through much of the first two acts. Perhaps it was inevitable this Tristan wouldn’t last the course, although so much that had come before had been impressive. I’m not sure he is a natural Heldentenor – but then the Royal Albert Hall is the most unforgiving acoustic for Wagnerian singers. Robin Ticciati never allowed the London Philharmonic to overwhelm his singers. As Ticciati amply showed, you can breathe fire into a performance, whip strings up into a frenzy until they are cracking the resin on their bows and get the brass to sound as sharp as the swing of an executioner’s axe and yet still have voices emerge with complete clarity. The love duet was exquisite for precisely this reason.

You do sometimes wonder when casting a Tristan and an Isolde whether the voices will be in balance. James King found himself underpowered by a significantly stronger Eileen Farrell in a rare performance of Act II he performed in Boston, for example. There were no problems with the voices in this concert, at least in terms of proportion. Miina-Liisa Värelä’s Isolde – as so often with Nordic sopranos who have sung this role – was troublesome at the bottom of the register whilst having little difficulty reaching her top notes. Such clarity in the orchestra was not mirrored in Värelä’s Isolde which, at best, was muddy – although I admit where you were sat in the hall may have had some impact on this, especially if a singer turned to the opposite direction from where you were sat in the stalls, for example. She is an undoubtedly imposing soprano but as so often with Isolde it’s the Brangäne who you wish would have been cast. Karen Cargill, following the example of Christa Ludwig, should probably never attempt the role of Isolde. Her beautifully expressive, entirely all-knowing singing, with an eye to Wagner’s chromatic colours and the link between the music and the text, showcased what a ‘Liebestod’ would have sounded like from Cargill rather than the dense and icily chilled one we got from Värelä. Imposing as this Isolde looks on stage it can’t somehow mask the fact she is far from invincible – and by the time she gets to the ‘Liebestod’ beginning to flag.

John Relyea was a King Marke of some stature, the stentorian Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang an able and far too gentle singer to border on the thuggish which can sometimes be the standard for Kurwenal. Neal Cooper’s Melot was really superseded by his Act III Tristan.

I am not entirely sure what would have happened to this performance had Cooper not been in the cast – and had he not just sung his first Tristan recently in New Zealand. A spare Tristan or two, lying around London at 8.30pm on a Tuesday evening, would surely not be something we had a lot of I should imagine. What we got is certainly not the Act III Tristan that was intended, and I think we should largely assume was pretty much entirely unrehearsed as well. In the circumstances it was delivered superbly, although we won’t quite know in what musical context. Simon O’Neill acted the role of Tristan on stage and there didn’t always feel a distinct symbiosis between what Neal Cooper was singing and what O’Neill was acting – but it hardly mattered. Freed from the shackles of a purely concert performance, O’Neill certainly had greater freedom to give us a more tragic Tristan; a Tristan actually on the brink of (multiple) death (s). His Isolde, however, did indeed feel shackled. I think Neal Cooper’s singing came closer to dream rather than delirium, those long monologues pressed into something more intense rather than driven towards hysteria. It was perhaps intended to feel underwhelming because it couldn’t be played any other way.

All great performances of Tristan und Isolde are fallible creations, built on at least one near-perfect part. Here, everything was suspended around an orchestra at the height of its powers – one of the great operatic orchestras with spellbinding playing, luminosity of textures, beauty of tone and intensity of emotion. Elsewhere it fell short; but with its orchestra and conductor this Tristan rose to epic heights.

Marc Bridle | 2 September 2021

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 48.0 kHz, 536 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC) of a semi-staged performance directed by Daniel Dooner
Simon O’Neill lost his voice after act 2. In act 3 Neal Cooper was singing Tristan from the side while Simon O’Neill was acting on stage.