High notes and love songs
OPERA:Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is an epic work based on an Irish myth, and it’s making a triumphant return to the stage in Dublin, writes SUZANNE LYNCH
AS HE STRIDES across the stage in the Exchange theatre in Dublin, it’s hard to distinguish director Peter Watson from the cast of Tristan and Isolde. It’s Act II, Scene III and Tristan’s uncle has just discovered that Tristan is romantically involved with his wife Isolde. Tristan’s friend Melot rushes forward with his sword, Tristan is slain, and the astonishing voice of Isolde soars above the action. It’s enthralling stuff.
It’s one week until opening night and rehearsals are in full swing for Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. The production of the opera – regarded by some as the greatest operatic work ever written – will be the first to take place in Ireland for more than 50 years when it opens in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre tomorrow.
The reason for the prolonged absence of Tristan from the Dublin stage is partly economic: the huge scope and scale of Wagner’s operas makes his work not just notoriously difficult, but also expensive, to stage.
But the absence of the work in Ireland, is all the more surprising given the piece’s Irish connections. Tristan and Isolde is based on the medieval Irish myth of Tristan and Iseult. Wagner, who used Norse and Germanic myths in his Ring cycle, based his opera on a version of the story by the 13th century German poet Gottfried von Straßburg.
As he takes a break from conducting, artistic director Fergus Sheil explains that this may also be the first time Isolde has been played by an Irish singer. “We’re not 100 per cent sure, but we think that Miriam Murphy may be the first Irish person to ever sing the role of Isolde,” he says as we take a seat inside the makeshift costume room, wading through the sea of costumes, wigs, props and sets.
The idea of bringing the opera to Dublin is the brainchild of Sheil and his new opera company, Wide Open Opera. Having worked on performances of Tristan and Isolde in Scotland and Australia, he had a long-term vision of bringing the opera to Dublin.
An Arts Council grant awarded to Wide Open Opera in March this year, allowed him to make that dream a reality. The performance is a Welsh National Opera production, directed by Peter Watson. “What we’ve done is use the Welsh National Opera production and populate it with an Irish company,” he says. Although the costumes, sets, and design were imported from Wales, the 20-strong chorus and 40-plus technical staff are Irish, while the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra is also on board. Of the nine principals, six are Irish, including the characters of Isolde, played by Miriam Murphy and Brangane, played by Imelda Drumm.
Rehearsals have taken place over four weeks – including one week in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. According to Sheil, the availability of the theatre was a key reason why the opera could be staged in Ireland. “There really was no suitable venue before to put on an opera of this scale and to do it justice. The Gaiety wasn’t really suitable. The set, for example, wouldn’t fit anywhere else. The size of the stage in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre . . . the orchestra pit . . . it’s equipped for this type of production.”