Tristan und Isolde

David Robertson
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
20 June 2015
Concert Hall Opera House Sydney
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanLance Ryan
IsoldeChristine Brewer
BrangäneKatarina Karnéus
KurwenalBoaz Daniel
König MarkeJohn Relyea
MelotAngus Wood
Ein junger SeemannJohn Tessier
Ein HirtJohn Tessier
SteuermannHarrison Collins
Stage director
Set designerS. Katy Tucker (video projections)
TV directorCameron Kirkpatrick
Limelight Magazine

Robertson shows a deep understanding of Wagner, but opera stars fall short of expectations

Where Wagnerian opera is concerned, size is everything, but it’s not just the scope of the gargantuan orchestral forces, brawny, ironclad voices, and herculean stamina required for his epic operas that’s big. The philosophical and emotional exploration at the heart of these stage works is on a cosmic scale, and justifiably craves an equally sizeable backdrop to effectively communicate. It’s little wonder therefore that Wagner’s operas rarely have an outing on the diminutive stages of the Sydney Opera House, and indeed it’s been eight years since Sydneysiders have had the chance to see one of the composer’s music dramas, fully staged, on home turf. However the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s magnificent concert presentation of Tristan und Isolde is an admirable – if not completely flawless – demonstration of how to deliver the titanic power and drama of Wagner when space is in short supply.

With virtually every inch of the concert platform occupied, not forgetting the auxiliary ensembles, off-stage players and male chorus shoehorned-in around the Concert Hall’s auditorium, SSO Chief Conductor David Robertson showed masterful control over the army of musicians at his command. This was a highly sophisticated account, richly sonorous and contoured. The orchestra were nimbly responsive to Robertson, with barely a dip in concentration or accuracy throughout the marathon 5-hour performance. For Bayreuth purists Robertson’s pacing is perhaps a bit too fleet, particularly in the dark, despairing moans of the strings at the opening of Act III. However his sense of dramatic tension is so consummate, his ability to annunciate the narrative thrust of Wagner’s enigmatically chromatic music so coherent, that this swifter flow felt perfectly judged.

Throughout, the performance bristled with the ingenuity of Wagner’s score, translating the irreconcilable conflict of desperate, inconsolable desire and inevitable oblivion into music. Robertson’s understanding of this dramatic tension was clear, and his emphasise of Wagner’s persistently unresolved harmony only served to heighten the celestial power of the final cadence, signalling the corporeal release of the two lovers.

Of course it’s one thing to draw an audience persuasively into the tragic, yearning world of Tristan and Isolde within the theatrical arena of a darkened opera house, and quite another to do it in the less engrossing environment of the concert hall. This performance managed to overcome this hurdle in most respects, with only a few obvious handicaps remaining.

In comparison to the legions of instrumentalists and chorus members, out on display and not shuttered away in a pit, the eight soloists felt at times rather outnumbered, and placed on a platform behind the orchestra – a necessity through lack of room more than anything else – the task to overcome the orchestral palette was occasionally a struggle.

Soprano Christine Brewer’s Isolde was the most conspicuously overwhelmed, and during the mammoth duet in Act 2 the effort was especially evident in her upper register. However, when not in competition with the full orchestral juggernaut, Brewer offered a beautiful nuanced and expertly controlled tone.

By contrast Canadian tenor Lance Ryan’s Tristan was all strength and power, but this veered too often from mere projection into a brute-force bludgeoning, exchanging a more pleasing colour for a flat, vibrato-free shout.

However, where Ryan and Brewer may have disappointed, the supporting cast truly surpassed expectations. Former Cardiff Singer of the World winner, Katarina Karnéus, who stunned audiences last week with her performance of Berlioz’s Nuit d’ete with the SSO, was equally impressive in this concert as Isolde’s companion Brangäne. Her full-bodied, sweet, mellifluous mezzo was deeply expressive and entirely moreish. The thick, reedy, elemental bass of John Relyea as King Marke was a potent display of regal might, and Boaz Daniel the faithful squire Kurnwenal provided a pleasantly buoyant foil for Ryan’s frail, injured Tristan. John Tessier’s dual role of the Young Sailor and Shepherd was also a surprise highlight, executing both parts with a clarion-clear timbre and beautiful, lighter-than-air effortlessness.

Some creatively conceived projections, by New York-based artist S Katy Tucker, provided some theatrical stimulus to the sterility of the concert hall. Tempestuous, turbulent, dreamlike scenes gave us sensuous glimpses of the young lovers, moving ethereally in super-slow-mo, but diluted the dangerous intensity of this relationship’s chemistry. Sadly, on stage Ryan and Brewer’s performance was largely inert and disappointingly static. The addition of carefully choreographed lighting offered a further gesture of some dramatic context, it couldn’t quite compete with the full, crushing impact of this mortal drama when experienced in the more viscerally charged space of the opera stage.

Maxim Boon | Concert Hall, Sydney Symphony Orchestra 20 June, 2015

Sydney Morning Herald

Sydney Symphony brings radiance to wonderful Wagner

This is the first live Sydney performance of one of Wagner’s music dramas – mature works from The Ring onwards – since Opera Australia’s Mastersingers in 2003.

Yet, only live performance – whether in the concert hall or opera theatre – brings out Wagner’s remarkable imaginative achievement in combining symphonic scale, theatrical moment and symbolic transformation of motives over a colossal time frame to produce experiences of overpowering intensity. One sits from the opening stirrings of desire on the cello to the tumultuous conflicting emotions of jubilation and yearning at the close of the first act 80 minutes later almost without realising one has drawn breath. No one shapes such large arcs in time quite like Wagner.

Conductor David Robertson brought clarity and lucidity to this music; not only in balance of sound but in the coherence of musical idea. Placed in front of the singers, the Sydney Symphony brought radiant colour, scrupulous care and well-formed phrasing to this great score.

By Wagnerian standards, Robertson’s speeds are on the quick side and tend to move forward rather than linger. The eroticism of the Prelude was not hurried but neither was it over-languorous.

Yet, there was plenty of time when it was needed: the striking pause as the love draught is drunk in Act I or the expansiveness and care in the closing love-death. Soprano Christine Brewer as Isolde captured that expansiveness with a voice of endless fluidity and measureless power. The line was never strained and the phrases seem to unfold like waves of time on the point of spilling into the infinite.

In the first act, the sense of effort was noticeable though the effect was still triumphant. In the second act, Brewer found a sense of flow which was maintained to the close. Lance Ryan as Tristan is a heldentenor in the Siegfried mould, emphasising strength more than lyric tone. There were moments in the great duet of Act II where the pitch took a while to find its focus as it stemmed the surging orchestral tumult. But Ryan prevailed valiantly and found expressiveness in reserve for the despairing soliloquy of the third act. Katarina Karneus as Brangane, Isolde’s maid and supplier of illicit substances, sang with a rare mixture of colour, glowing focus and mercurial expressive flexibility, while John Relyea as the bewildered and notionally “wronged” King Marke, brought an affecting weight of woe and depth to the sound. Boaz Daniel, as Tristan’s loyal if excitable servant Kurwenal, sang with attractive uncomplicated bloom to his voice, while Angus Wood, as the treacherous Melot, had potent incisive edge.

Wagner introduces both outer acts of this exploration of the mythic subconscious with evocations of timeless folk melody and John Tessier gave the unaccompanied sailor’s song at the start lonely eloquence. Even more haunting was Alexandre Oguey’s mellow-grained cor anglais solo for Act III with tenor John Tessier as the Shepherd. Placing the singers behind rather than in front of the orchestra threw them an additional challenge and hearing the singers wrestle their way through this immense ensemble created an additional dimension of excitement.

However, there was no movement and the only gestures towards the theatrical were S. Katy Tucker’s projected videos of symbolic images, young lovers, inky turbulence and land and seascapes. Try and catch it on Monday or you may have to wait a decade or two.

Peter McCallum | June 21, 2015

Daily Telegraph

Tristan und Isolde proves a winner for marathon man David Robertson and the SSO

Richard Wagner’s great love tragedy Tristan und Isolde, of all his operas, has come in for the most discussion — for and against — by critics and academics.

It was revolutionary when it was premiered in the 1865 and it retains its power and freshness today. When you see a straight-through performance with a top-notch orchestra and cast, the music’s power and beauty throughout almost five hours of erotic tension and unresolved yearning still raises pulses and grips the listener until the final ecstatic resolution when the lovers are united in death.

And such was the case when chief conductor David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra staged two performances of the complete work in the concert hall with a highly talented cast — the first time the orchestra had done it in 12 years and only the fourth time in its 83-year history.


The production, however, did not come without the notorious “Tristan curse” which originated when the tenor who took the role for Wagner’s premiere in Munich died after only four performances. Robertson, though more fortunate, did lose his original Tristan when Australian tenor Stuart Skelton pulled out a few weeks back because persistent chest colds left him underprepared for the demanding role, which was taken over by Canadian Lance Ryan.

And then fellow Canadian, bass John Relyea, stepped in at short notice after Stephen Milling had to pull out of the role of Marke, King of Cornwall.

There were some setbacks. The singers were not aided by being placed at the back of the stage and having to project across the massive orchestra. And if you were sitting in the middle and back of the stalls you battled the intrusive hum of fans and motors kicking in to drive the array of video and projection design equipment for New Yorker S Katy Tucker’s largely effective backdrop.

The multimedia approach was needed to get over what is basically a visually static opera — basically it’s all entrances and exits and singing — but something to baffle the noise would have been welcome, especially in the frequent quieter moments of the first act.


But that said, and although I would have preferred Skelton’s more nuanced vocal approach, this was a terrific journey with American soprano Christine Brewer compelling as Isolde, ably assisted by Swedish mezzo Katarina Karneus as the well-meaning maid Brangane who brings about a major plot change when she substitutes a love potion for the poison her mistress orders to prepare for Tristan in the first act.

Israeli baritone Boaz Daniel was excellent as Tristan’s faithful retainer Kurwenal and Relyea justifiably got one of the loudest ovations of the night for his beautiful handling of the betrayed king.

A third Canadian, tenor John Tessier, was also a standout in his dual role as the Young Sailor in Act 1 and the Shepherd in Act 2, which he sang from a box in the circle accompanied beautifully by Alexandre Oguey on cor anglais.

Robertson is a superb judge of pace and structure and seemingly the bigger the challenge the more he likes it. This was a marathon production to set alongside his triumphant reading of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman with the SSO in 2013 and Richard Strauss’s Elektra in 2014.

All of which begs the question why we aren’t seeing these high-powered operas next door to the Concert Hall in the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

Steve Moffatt | June 23, 2015

Passion, sorrow and love

A performance of Wagner’s epic Tristan und Isolde, a testimony for all-enduring love, is a welcome event anywhere in the world. Even more so in Sydney, where this cathartic music drama was produced for only the fourth time since the Opera House opened in 1973. (It is somewhat ironic that all performances took place in the Concert Hall with the contribution of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, leaving the patrons of the iconic building’s Opera Theatre with its own resident orchestra longing for their own production.)

The two performances of the last few days were prepared with a lot of care and attention to detail and the musical experience could have been nothing short of stunning – had a few odd artistic decisions not impaired its overall effect.

By installing a huge screen behind the orchestra and the singers, onto which S Katy Tucker designed video projections, a fantastic opportunity opened up to provide a third layer of interpretation with the text (so important in Wagner’s music dramas) and the music. The concept of assisting a plot with internal psychological developments but little action has been proven to have enormous potential, for example in the Tristan production of the Opéra de Paris almost a decade ago. I found the Sydney projections, based on predictable and recurring symbols like fire, water, a sword or a large eye, plus a young couple eternally gazing at each other, disappointingly shallow and not helpful to the audience; in fact distracting from the music and the musicians. Its repetitiveness culminated in Act III with a white seagull crossing the screen back and forth endlessly in the video loop.

The orchestra, always a protagonist in Wagner’s operas, was outstanding, led firmly and energetically by David Robertson. There were lovely wind solos and a constantly focused string sound, gentle and velvety or perhaps fervent and shattering, depending on the events in the drama. The tempos dictated by the conductor at times felt slightly breathless (as in the renowned opening bars of the opera, when the rhythm almost got distorted), but Robertson kept the massive ensemble of large orchestra, soloists, chorus and off-stage instrumentalists, as well as the magnificent arch of over five hours run time eminently in control. He directed the flow of the music with confidence while allowing his orchestra to play freely. Amongst other orchestral sections, the Prelude of Act II felt particularly inspired.

A significant problem arose here though, as the singers were seated on a platform behind the orchestra and were thus forced to devote a considerable proportion of their artistic might to be heard as clearly as possible. This proved not much of a problem in the softer sections and poignant musical moments showed the true potential of this performance (memorably the middle section of the love duet in the Act II, “O sink’ hernieder”). However, most of the exalted and triumphant beginning of the same duet suffered from a severe balance problem. It was not due to any deficiency of the protagonists and it was certainly not the fault of the orchestra. As a result of the disadvantaged position of the singers, in the loud sections first Wagner’s poetically inspired libretto was in danger of being lost, then at times, it became problematic to ascertain which language they were singing and sadly, I found it often difficult to hear them at all over the orchestra’s swelling sound.

For these reasons it would be unfair to comment extensively on the singers. Easiest to hear and appreciate were the voices of the Steersman (Harrison Collins) and the Shepherd (John Tessier), opening Act I and III respectively, giving a beautiful rendition of their minor roles – but then, they were singing without any orchestral accompaniment. John Relyea was heart-wrenching, yet regally dignified in the role of King Marke. (Wagner had first-hand experience of knowing betrayed husbands whose best friend took off with their wife. After all, it was he who seduced Cosima Liszt, the wife of Hans von Bülow, his admiring friend and the conductor of the 1865 premier of Tristan und Isolde not long before the first performance.) Relyea was fortunate in as much as he had a tenderly soft orchestra supporting him during his emotive monologue in Act II. The loyal servants, Kurwenal (Boaz Daniel) and Brangäne (Katarina Karnéus) were not offered the same luxury by the composer and, though singing valiantly with finesse, some of their vocal qualities remained undiscovered.

In the role of Tristan, Lance Ryan’s beautiful Heldentenor voice often sounded strained and this also affected his intonation on occasion. Some of his fortissimo notes were sung with an overly wide vibrato whereas at other times, he elected to free his voice from vibrato altogether. Christine Brewer, with a wealth of experience singing Isolde, seemed to struggle with the punishingly high notes in Act I but relaxed more as the evening went on. Her voice blossomed admirably and “Mild und leise”, the heavenly Liebestod, brought the opera to a sublime finish.

Zoltán Szabó | 24 Juni 2015

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1920×1080, 3.7 Mbit/s, 4.4 GByte (MPEG-4)
English subtitles
Concert performance with video projections