Review: Tristan und Isolde

Bord Gais Energy Theatre

IT WAS the quick-witted Rossini who suggested that Wagner has good moments but bad quarters of an hour. And, to be fair, the passing of time can become a real issue when a Wagner performance is not going well. As another sharp commentator pointed, there are time-filling issues for the singers, too. “Not appearing ridiculous,” wrote Virgil Thomson, “while they stand around waiting for their emotions to be described by the orchestra has always been the acting problem of Wagnerian singers.”

‘A triumph all round’: Tristan und Isolde

Yes, there is killing in Tristan und Isolde. But violent death seems almost incidental in the opera’s scheme of the inevitable. We’re dealing with impossible love, at first unwelcome and resisted, then, courtesy of a love-potion, as full-on as you can imagine. What the singers do is think out loud, and emote. And it takes four hours of music to reach the final death and transfiguration.

Wide Open Opera’s production would seem at first sight to be both implausible and impossible. The company is new, and this Tristan, its first production, only got the green light of funding – more than €600,000, surely a record for a first grant – from the Arts Council six months ago.

Six of the nine roles are taken by Irish singers, the conductor – WOO’s artistic director Fergus Sheil – is Irish, too, the RTÉ NSO made a welcome return to the opera pit, and Yannis Kokkos’s two-decades-old, tried and tested production – disarmingly simple, but highly effective – was hired in from Welsh National Opera, with Peter Watson directing the revival.

The opening night was a triumph all round. Kerry soprano Miriam Murphy was a vocally resplendent Isolde. Her voice has a natural Wagnerian amplitude, enabling her to ride some of the climaxes as though she hadn’t even had to move out of first gear. Her tone was firm (not a hint of wobbly Wagnerian vibrato), her intonation true, her declamation penetrating, her handling of the closing Liebestod simply thrilling.

Swedish tenor Lars Cleveman was a slightly introverted Tristan, with sometimes a lightness of delivery that, erroneously as it turned out, suggested he mightn’t have the full vocal heft for the role. As a wounded man in Act III he even managed to believably suggest the frailty of a man close to death, making his reinvogoration on Isolde’s return all the more effective.

Imelda Drumm’s Brangäne was compassionate and concerned, Brett Polegato’s Kurwenal impressively sturdy, Manfred Hemm’s King Marke authoritatively noble, and the smaller roles were all well taken.
Fergus Sheil conducted as to the manor born, paced the music with sensitive care, secured near-perfect balances between voices and orchestra, and coaxed from the RTÉ NSO some of the finest playing I’ve ever heard from them in the opera pit. A Tristan und Isolde to cherish.

Also on Wednesday and Saturday

– Michael Dervan

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