The Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival
One’s appreciation of Peter Sellar’s and Bill
Viola’s presentation of Tristan und Isolde as an
“experience” (as opposed to a concert performance of the opera) will probably
depend on a personal response to the latter’s ever-present video imagery.
Esa-Pekka Salonen gave a perfectly good account of
the score, with dashes of theatricality, brash in places, uplifting
particularly at the ends of acts but lacking a little in warmth in the
overwhelming central act.
The monumentality and passion of more recent London
performances – Pappano at Covent Garden last year or Rattle at this year’s
Proms (Act 2) – may have been missing but it had more than its fair share of
excitement and thrills.
Viola’s background of filmed sequences, projected
onto a giant screen above the orchestra and singers’ heads was more
problematic. The images ranged
from the literal (waves crashing on the shore, moody woods, moonlight through
trees) to the cheesily ritualistic and the obviously symbolic (much plunging
into the sea or walking hand-in-hand into the light), with only the slightest hints
If the appeal of endless water imagery and twigs
doesn’t sustain for four hours, you may find this presentation, which found its
way to London after several years of touring Europe, a little wearing.
The strength of the singing was a major
compensation. The world isn’t
over-run with heldentenors and the recent arrival of a new one in the shape of
Gary Lehman is very welcome. Both
he and Violeta Urmana as Isolde are vocally attractive and seemingly
tireless. They were well supported
by Jukka Rasilainen as Kurwenal and Stephen Gadd’s Melot and particularly by
Anne Sofie Otter’s superb Brangaene and Matthew Best’s moving King Marke.
Sellars brings much more to it than the jobbing
director this type of presentation usually gets, with imaginative positionings
for both instrumentalists and singers around the hall, leading to some stunning
The suggestion that you shut your eyes and listen
to the music is frequently made for full stagings of Wagner’s work these days,
and it feels strange applying it to a concert performance, but if moody scene-setting
more appropriate to certain types of advertising doesn’t fit with your view of
Wagner’s great drama, it’s good advice.