Tristan und Isolde

Semyon Bychkov
Men’s voices of BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
27 July 2013
Royal Albert Hall London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanRobert Dean Smith
IsoldeVioleta Urmana
BrangäneMihoko Fujimura
KurwenalBoaz Daniel
König MarkeKwangchul Youn
MelotDavid Wilson-Johnson
Ein junger SeemannAndrew Staples
Ein HirtAndrew Staples
SteuermannEdward Price
Stage director
Set designer
TV director?

When most of us feel like we’re getting a little stale with a piece of work we’re doing – when the thoughts, words or ideas are drying up – we stop for a coffee, stretch our legs, or do a bit of internet browsing. When Richard Wagner realised inspiration was running low for Siegfried, he decided to have a break from it too. Except this break wasn’t your average fifteen-minute game of spider solitaire: this break lasted twelve years and consisted of (amongst other things) writing a different opera – one that would prove revolutionary to Western music. So it was a nifty bit of programming by the BBC Proms 2013 schedulers to sneak a performance of Tristan and Isolde in between Siegfried on Friday and its sequel Götterdämmerung on Sunday. Daniel Barenboim and his Wagner collective were given the night off, as Semyon Bychkov conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, BBC Singers and a cast of soloists headed by Robert Dean Smith and Violeta Urmana as the opera’s eponymous lovers.

Tristan and Isolde’s revolutionary nature lies in the way Wagner manipulates harmony, breaking the boundaries of harmonic convention with his increasing disregard for the handling of dissonance. This is famously and spine-tinglingly apparent at the opera’s outset, in the opening bars of the orchestral prelude to Act I. The instantly recognisably phrase, with its rising minor sixth and celebrated “Tristan chord”, wound its way out softly into the huge space of the Royal Albert Hall, heralding what was to be an extraordinary five-and-a-half hours of pure, adulterous passion.

The seriousness and intensity with which the orchestra played this prelude, with not a hint of swooning melodrama, boded well for the music to come. It is in the orchestra that Wagner places all his musical richness, all his psychological exploration, all his depth of emotion. Bychkov drew out an appropriately inspired performance from his players, who tirelessly provided the core of the entire music drama. Whilst there were moments in the first act when the tutti orchestra lacked a little punch, the power that the conductor drew on at the paroxysms of Wagner’s soundworld was immense. Moreover, the quieter passages, using minimal forces and often single instrumentalists, were stunningly beautiful. Particularly outstanding for me were lead violist Nobert Blume’s gorgeous Act I duet with Isolde; bass clarinettist Katharine Lacy’s glowering duet with King Marke from Act II; and Alison Teale’s offstage appearance with her cor anglais, mournfully piping the Shepherd’s plaintive song in Act III. I needn’t mention others: suffice it to say, the BBC Symphony Orchestra were the life-blood of this hot-blooded operatic affair.

This is not to say the orchestra’s performance was faultless. Circumstances are not in your favour when you are a soloist trying to compete with a symphony orchestra in a massive space like the Royal Albert Hall. I felt at times Bychkov could have tried a little harder not to drown out the singers completely. Sometimes this was not a problem: when the lovers meet in the King’s garden in Act II, the overwhelming, climactic music expresses their feelings far better than the enamoured ejaculations of the singers, and so Bychkov cleverly allowed the vast wave of orchestral sound to engulf their voices completely. And yet, in general, more slack could have been cut for the soloists, who battled valiantly, but often in vain, to bring their lines out. Worst suffering in this respect was Robert Dean Smith, who, as a stand-in for Peter Seiffert, proved a too-easily-overcome Tristan. I got the impression that we neither witnessed Dean Smith nor Tristan at their best tonight.

Violeta Urmana was more convincing in the role of Isolde, and she managed the continuous emotional highs and lows magnificently, whilst leaving plenty in the tank for that stunning climactic final aria, the Liebestod. I especially enjoyed her mocking tone in Isolde’s ironic summary of her position in Act I, which showed a hint of personality in Wagner’s otherwise rather two-dimensional characters. Stealing the show, though, were singers in supporting roles: Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne, Isolde’s faithful maid; and Kwangchul Youn’s betrayed King Marke. Youn’s rich bass was the only voice never at risk of being swallowed up, and his distraught discovery of his champion’s betrayal was the most dramatic moment in the opera, despite (or perhaps due to) being amongst the quietest. Fujimura’s voice seemed to grow throughout the opera, and her facial and bodily expressiveness contributed dramatic depth to her performance: a dramatic engagement often lacking from the other soloists in this concert version.

Wagner might have had twelve years off, but the Wagnerites at the BBC Proms have little over twelve hours to prepare themselves for musical Armageddon in Götterdämmerung. Given the tireless enthusiasm of their reception of Tristan, they probably could manage just twelve minutes. After the deserved standing ovation had abated, of course.

David Fay | 29 Juli 2013

For those whose Wagnerian thirst had not yet been quenched by three parts of the Ring, the Proms now offered Tristan und Isolde. Semyon Bychkov, whom I heard conduct the work in Paris in 2008, once again proved a sure guiding presence, though perhaps without the final ounce or two of delirium that is required to elevate the work to the deserved status of Nietzsche’s opus metaphysicum. The opening Prelude underlined the crucial importance of the bass line, even in – arguably particularly in – this work, straining as it does at the bounds of tonality, without ever quite transgressing them. As Theodor Adorno wrote, in his Versuch über Wagner, ‘‘It is with good reason that the bars in the Tristan score following the words “der furchtbare Trank” stand upon the threshold of new music, in whose first canonical work, Schoenberg’s F-sharp minor Quartet, the words appear: “Take love from me, grant me your happiness!”’ I never felt that quite so much was at stake, but this remained a distinguished reading in a more conventionally dramatic sense. Part of that, perhaps, was to be attributed to the orchestra. Whilst on fine form, the BBC Symphony Orchestra could not, with the best will in the world, be said to have conjured up the tonal, metaphysical depth of Daniel Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin, especially when it came to the all-important string section.

That said, Bychkov worked wonders at times. The orchestral swaying at the beginning of the first time managed to convey just the right mixture of physical and metaphysical turbulence. Sinuous woodwind as Isolde told of her ‘art’ looked forward to the Flowermaidens. The orchestra as a whole, even if it sometimes lacked true depth, still assumed its role as Greek Chorus, or, in Wagner’s later terms, representation of the Will. As Isolde instructed Kurwenal to have Tristan come to her, there was a true sense of tragic inevitability both from orchestra and singer. Bychkov, here and elsewhere, understood and communicated both musical structure and its interaction with the external ‘drama’. (In this of all Wagner’s works, the drama lies more in the orchestra than anywhere else; indeed, more than once, I found myself thinking how much I should love to hear him conduct Schoenberg’s avowedly post­­-Tristan symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisande. The stillness of Hell, as much as Nietzsche’s ‘voluptuousness’, truly registered as Isolde drank the potion; moreover, the shimmering sound Bychkov drew from the BBC SO violins had them play to a level I have rarely heard – certainly not under their recently-departed absentee conductor.

The Prelude to Act II was unusually fleet, but not harried: probably wise given that one was not dealing with the traditional ‘dark’ German sound of an orchestra such as Barenboim’s Staatskapelle. Offstage brass, conducted by Andrew Griffiths, were excellent. Again, the BBC SO often surpassed itself, its scream at the opening of the second scene – responding to Isolde’s ‘Tristan – Geliebter!’ – offering a somewhat embarrassing contrast with the puny sounds heard from Tristan himself. Woodwind again excelled, at times, for instance after Isolde’s ‘O eitler Tagesknecht!’, evoking Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. As Tristan – just about – harangued the spite and envy of day, we heard an apt orchestral sardonicism, mid-way between Loge and Schoenberg. (I thought in particular of the First Chamber Symphony.) And the deadly slowing of the heartbeat – Karajan truly worried about this Act II music, fearing it might literally take the lives of conductors – was well conveyed. I liked the idea – and practice – of having the Shepherd’s English horn solo piped from above, as if from the ramparts. The spotlighting of the (very good) soloist put me in mind of Stockhausen’s later practice of blurring the boundaries between instruments and ‘characters’. If the level of orchestral playing was not so impressive during much of the third act, most obviously earlier on, that may have been part of a doomed attempt to enable Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan to be heard. There was, though, also a problem with balance at times, the brass tending to overpower in a way never heard in Barenboim’s Ring performances. Dramatic urgency was regained, however, after Tristan’s death.

Violeta Urmana opened in somewhat shrill fashion, her words often indistinct. She improved quickly, though, and as early as the second scene, was both more sensitive in terms of tonal variegation and far more comprehensible. There were times, especially during the first act – for instance, on the ‘preis’ of ‘mit ihr gab er es pries!’ – when her climaxes were a little too conventionally operatic, but hers remained a committed performance. She had no difficulty in riding the orchestral wave in her transfiguration: impressive, if not necessarily moving. Mihoko Fujimura excelled as Brangäne; indeed, it seems to be more her role than Kundry. There was true musical satisfaction to be gained from the ‘rightness’ of her phrasing, as well as dramatic truth from the honesty of her character portrayal. Her second-act Watch was radiant, euphonious, somehow sounding as if from a greater distance than the RAH organ, as if carried to us by an opportune, clement breeze. Andrew Staples put in excellent performances as both the Shepherd and the Young Sailor. The latter role, sung from above, was very nicely shaded, and with diction of an excellence that put many other cast members to shame. As Shepherd, his voice was audibly, somewhat awkwardly, more virile than that of the lamentable Tristan.

Robert Dean Smith was, alas, a grave disappointment as Tristan. From his ‘Fragt die Sitte!’ to Isolde, matter of fact in the wrong way, there was little dramatic involvement to be gleaned. He often sounded more like Isolde’s grandfather, about to expire, even in the first act, than her lover. The orchestra, as guided by Bychkov, often compensated for him, but it should not have had to do so.. When Tristan sang that he and Isolde were ‘ungetrennt’ (undivided), the division was all too glaringly apparent. It was not just that he lacked charisma and volume, though he certainly did, but that his performance throughout seemed entirely unaware of the deadly eroticism in which it should have been soaked; he often sounded more like an attempt, a couple of sizes too small, at Beckmesser, than Tristan. Boaz Daniel proved an ardent Kurwenal, his ‘Heil Tristan!’ a proper reminder of a doomed attempt to return to the chivalric mores of Lohengrin, of the day. David Wilson-Johnson’s Melot was unpleasantly blustering, the only other real disappointment in the cast. Kwangchul Youn gave an excellent performance too. I have often found him a little dull in the past, but here his tenderness and passion showed King Marke to be a true human being, not a mere saint. Had I been Isolde, I should certainly have stuck with him on this occasion.

The combined male forces of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra made for a goodlier crew than I can recall, a veritable male voice choir. There was no compromise between heft and diction; the former quality had the excellent consequence of already emphasising the threatening nature of the external, phenomenal world of the day. If not necessarily a Tristan for the ages, then, there remained much to admire.

Mark Berry | Sunday, 28 July 2013

Stealing in with chronological correctness into the continuing drama of the Proms Ring cycle, this exceptional account of Tristan und Isolde – Wagner’s hymn to desire, darkness and death – stripped to the bone his acute dissection of the story’s turmoil of motive, concealment, repression and inevitable eruption.

This was theatre of the mind that, under Semyon Bychkov’s inspired conducting, achieved a Beckett-like depth of human and archetypal expression. With uncanny perception, Bychkov completely had the measure of the drama’s opposing realities, of ‘real time’ pulling against the lovers’ time-arresting yearnings. Moments such as the imminent arrival of King Mark at the end of Act One, Kurwenal’s increasing despair over the wounded Tristan in Act Three and, most powerfully, the moral shock of Mark’s betrayal in Act Two, crackled with rare tension against the lovers’ increasing detachment from the world.

Violeta Urmana as Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris Christodoulou Violeta Urmana didn’t always have the fullness of tone and reach at the top of her voice for Isolde’s incandescent outbursts – the moment the all-important light is extinguished just before the love-duet didn’t pulverise you with annihilating carnality – but she was compelling in laying bare the absorbing complexities of Isolde’s character, with a range of expression and colour that penetrated deep into the bitterness and irony of her Act One monologues and into a marvellously abandoned ‘Liebestod’. An imposing figure, dressed in black, Urmana gave us an Isolde as a queen of the night to be reckoned with.

Robert Dean Smith as Tristan in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris Christodoulou Robert Dean Smith as Tristan (replacing Peter Seiffert at short notice) was similarly strong in the interior music, enhanced by a limited but effective repertoire of hand gestures, touchingly expressive as the love-potion worked its magic, and an ardent lover in Act Two. In the final Act he coped heroically with Wagner’s superhuman demands; but while it didn’t succumb to Helden-bleat, the top of his range lost much of its volume. For all that, he pushed the boundaries of Tristan’s delirium with disarming, though carefully husbanded, conviction, and you felt that both singers were inside both the music and the words. Bychkov took pains to keep the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a short leash in Act Two, to give the lovers as much exposure as possible, although, in this most orchestral of operas, he gave the players their head in Act Three.

Boaz Daniel as Kurwenal in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris Christodoulou The smaller roles were all impressive – a spellbinding, intense Brangäne from Mihoko Fujimura (replacing Sophie Koch), incisive in Act One and sublime in the ‘Habet Acht’ of the second Act, the long lines floating seraphically down from the organ loft; a robust, sympathetic and powerfully sung Kurwenal from Boaz Daniel, who was wonderful in conveying the character’s tenderness in Act Three; an unforgettable King Mark from Kwangchul Youn, whose beautifully paced monologue defined the enormity of the lover’s overturning of the moral order; a haunting Young Sailor from Andrew Staples, sung as a disembodied presence from the Gallery; a forthright Steersman from Edward Price; and a Melot from David Wilson-Johnson of visceral rawness. The men’s chorus – big enough to crew an entire medieval fleet – produced an impressive blast of sound with chamber-like precision.

It was Bychkov and the BBCSO who defined the experience. His conducting combined a sure sense of pace and discreet pressure with a superbly controlled volatility that you felt deepened your relationship with the music’s acutely realised psychology. It was both magisterial and fiercely personal – as though the obsession-inducing score was being played just for you. The BBCSO, very thoroughly prepared – and fielding eloquent off-stage cor anglais solos and a trenchant brass band for the conclusion of Act One – played with a delicacy and power that will stay with me for a long time. Despite the unseemly rush by some to applaud at the opera’s very end, destroying any afterglow, this performance was something very special.

Peter Reed

The Guardian

Wagner famously broke off work on the Ring after Act 2 of Siegfried in order to write Tristan und Isolde, arguably his greatest score and, given that it rewrote the musical rule book, certainly his most influential. Whether by accident or design, the Proms approximated history by sandwiching its own very fine Tristan between the last two instalments of Daniel Barenboim’s Ring.

Semyon Bychkov conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance that was compelling if occasionally wayward. Bychkov’s reputation as a measured Wagnerian is founded on his interpretations of early scores such as Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. In Tristan he allows himself more latitude with speeds, with surprising results. The slowly unwinding prelude led to a first act of gathering momentum that culminated in a confrontation between the lovers that was as swift as it was neurotic. Rather than lingering over harmonic progressions, O Sink Hernieder pulsated urgently. Mark’s monologue felt too slow. And in Act 3, Bychkov ratcheted up the orchestral volume a bit too much, occasionally giving his singers a hard time. The BBCSO played it wonderfully well.

The cast was mostly impressive. Robert Dean Smith’s voice has darkened a bit since I last heard him sing Tristan, though his accuracy, tirelessness and vocal ease remain staggering. Violeta Urmana was his Isolde, more convincing in rage than ecstasy, and not always in control of her upper registers. Mihoko Fujimura was the full-on Brangäne, Boaz Daniel the handsome, rather intellectual Kurwenal. There was a nicely sonorous Mark from Kwangchul Youn. Bychkov’s decision to use men’s voices from both the BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus meant that the Act 1 choruses really hit home for once.

Tim Ashley | Sunday 28 July 2013

The Telegraph

Slipping Tristan und Isolde between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung may look like dishing up roast beef as a sorbet between the fish and fowl, but there is some justification for the juxtaposition – Wagner interrupted the composition of Siegfried two-thirds of the way through to embark on Tristan, at which point his musical development passed a watershed. Yet I wonder whether such programming wasn’t a bridge too far for the Prommers who seemed to be wilting somewhat on another sweltering night – and the house was a little less than full too. The feeling of exhaustion in the air resulted in a second-best sort of performance which never caught fire or tugged at the heartstrings.

The evening’s most engaging aspect was the conducting of Semyon Bychkov, who features high on my short list to succeed Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden. He led a very beautiful reading of the score, intensifying in Act 3 to a place where both the drama’s arid desolation and feverish excitement were forcibly communicated.

But previously one had been sharply reminded that the BBC Symphony Orchestra is not an opera house band, and that the players were going their own sweet way without one ear to the singers. With the Hall’s mushy acoustic providing an additional layer of resonance, too much text was drowned out in the imbalance.

The lovers both gave solid but unbeguiling accounts of their demanding roles. The regal Violeta Urmana sang Isolde firmly and accurately – at least until she darted wildly above the stave – but the voice isn’t as ample as it once was, More debilitatingly, everything she uttered seemed pitched at one emotional level, so that neither the scalding urgency of the curse and the lighting of the torch or the rapturous sensuality of the duet and Liebestod registered as psychologically significant.

Rupert Christiansen | 28 Jul 2013

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Telecast of a concert performance (BBC Proms 2013 #19)