Archive for Ben Heppner

Tristan und Isolde

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2012 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I’m a regular opera-goer, I’m by no means as much of a devout fan of Richard Wagner as many of that ilk, including some of my colleagues. Nevertheless, I have decided to persevere in much the same way as I have done with Brahms. Last night I had an opportunity to do just that by going to the first night of the new run of Tristan und Isolde by Welsh National Opera. I was particularly delighted to see this opera on the WNO schedule for this year, because it is an opera with which I am a little bit familiar, and thus provided me with an excuse to persevere a little bit more, for reasons I shall explain…

Years ago, when I lived in Nottingham, on a warm summer evening I decided to listen to some of the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of Tristan und Isolde from Glyndebourne. I made myself a cocktail and took the radio out into the garden with the intention of listening to a bit of it before going out for the evening. This was back in the days when I actually used to go out on the town on Saturday nights; now I’m too old for that sort of thing. Anyway, I was hooked right from the Prelude. Act I came and went and I decided to make some dinner in the interval, opened a bottle of wine, and returned to listen to the rest of it. The glorious music washed over me in the sultry twilight. Darkness fell, a second bottle of wine was opened, and still I listened – no doubt to the consternation of my neighbours. The final Liebestod was so beautiful I almost cried. Eventually I retreated to the house having experienced my first all-out Wagner trip.

My enjoyment of that occasion was of course helped by the fact I could get up and walk around occasionally, as well as by the liberal intake of fine wine. Nevertheless, I took enough out of it to want to see a full performance. Last night was my chance.

I think the first thing to say about Tristan und Isolde is that the music is completely wonderful. Not only ravishingly beautiful, but also haunting and complex. The opening bars establish a vividly chromatic orchestral palette which is used to brilliant effect to create the atmosphere of tragedy that pervades this work. The opening chord, the Tristan chord, is dissonant and its effect is strengthened by its resolution into another dissonant chord.

It’s often been said – probably with justification – that the freedom with which Wagner composed this opera opened up a whole new set of possibilities for Western classical music. It’s also wonderful to listen to.

So as a music drama it scores nearly 100% for the music. As a drama, though, it leaves a lot to be desired. The plot in Act I is absurd even by operatic standards. Isolde plans to poison Tristan and then take poison herself, but her servant Brangäne does a nifty switch of the vials and the two drink a love potion instead. This ignites a mutual desire that had previously been dormant and leads them into a tragic confrontation between love and responsibility. Isolde, you see, is betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall, and Tristan is his most loyal and virtuous knight. You know this isn’t going to end well, but the bit with the potions reminded me of that old Danny Kaye sketch about the “Vessel with the Pestle”.

Act 2 finds Tristan and Isolde in a dark wood, having embarked on an illicit love affair. It’s basically just the two of them on stage expressing their love to each other in wonderful music. Dramatically, however, nothing at all happens for the best part of an hour until right at the end when the King and his men find the couple in flagrant deliciousness. Now I understood why this opera works so well on the radio..

Tristan is stabbed by one of the King’s cronies at the end of Act 2, but the start of Act 3 finds him back in his ancestral home in Brittany, mortally wounded, lying under a very large plank of wood. In despair he hopes that Isolde will find him and mend his wounds with one of her potions (hopefully the right one this time). She arrives, but he snuffs it before she can help. Then another ship arrives, carrying King Mark and his boys, who have obviously been in hot pursuit across the English Channel. Isolde sings of being reunited in love with the dead Tristan and as she sings the stage and other actors fade from view. She dies.

Full marks to Isolde, Ann Petersen, a wonderful dramatic soprano with an electrifying voice; she’s from Denmark, incidentally. Canadian-born Ben Heppner as Tristan, was also in good voice, although he sometimes struggled to project and his rotund appearance called for a bit of audience imagination for him to be seen as a dashing knight. Mezzo  Susan Bickley was a splendid Brangäne too.

The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs were excellent too, after a rather nervous opening during which they seemed almost to be in awe of the music they were playing. And a special word for the staging, which was rather stark but also very clever, especially during Act I when a translucent screen divided the front and back of the stage and allowed some intriguing lighting effects.

I’d prepared myself psychologically for the 5 hours plus of this performance – not too bad actually, when you realise that includes two intervals, of 25 minutes and 50 minutes respectively – so I coped well enough. The piece definitely has its   longueurs, but you can always shut your eyes and imagine you’re in the garden at home..