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Tristan und Isolde Act 2 (LSO/Harding)

Daniel Harding conducts a starry cast at London's Barbican Hall in a substantial chunk of Wagner

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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I'm always in two minds regarding performances of bleeding chunks or even isolated acts of Wagner masterpieces. It's hard to envisage a magical night of love when seated in the sterile atmosphere of a modern concert hall. The harsh white light reveals not a pair of legendary, drop-dead gorgeous, lovers but a slightly brassy blonde and a harassed Burgermeister type. I was also disappointed to see, given both singers' familiarity with the roles, the deadening use of music stands and scores.

Daniel Harding
That said, Peter Seiffert and Irène Theorin sang the title roles of Tristan und Isolde extremely well and seemed tireless in the face of Wagner's superhuman demands. Theorin had no trouble with the lancing top Cs at the start of the duet and Seiffert was more powerful and secure than any recent London Tristan. If only their demeanour had reflected the passion of their singing. Theorin, particularly, seemed infernally casual for someone caught in the throes of uncontrollable desire. I do wonder if she hasn't spent far too long involved in the abominable Bayreuth production in which the lovers evinced as much passion as a convocation of cardigan salespersons.

Seiffert's finest moment came in the final words addressed to Isolde before flinging himself on Melot's sword. I am probably being unfair to both singers, and clearly the hall does them no favours, but I have known many singers who have set more challenging stages alight with passion conveyed only through singing.

Strangely, another singer on the platform could have been born to portray Isolde visually. Dressed in a spectacular green velvet dress with pale Celtic colouring and Pre-Raphaelite tresses, Christianne Stotijn looked the picture of the wilful Irish Princess; however, she was playing Brangäne - and she sang and acted her role to a high standard. Her urgent, intelligent word colouring rather eclipsed that of her mistress and if her Tower Calls weren't quite as sumptuous as one might have hoped that was as much to do with her placement in that strange box entrance at the rear of the Barbican platform.

Towering over everyone, both physically and in performance, was Matti Salminen's King Marke. I first heard Salminen in this part listening, on a poor quality radio at school, to a relay of Barenboim's first Bayreuth Tristan. That must be over 35 years ago, and if the years have slightly reduced the massive power of the voice there is little else to indicate the passing of time. Salminen gave an object lesson in artistry, mercilessly exploring the agony of the King reeling at his nephew's betrayal. From the heights of the great cry "Elend" to the voice fined down to a whisper, this was operatic singing and acting of the highest order and I feel privileged to have seen it.

Mark Stone made a strong Melot (and also sang Kurwenal's one line). He even managed to indicate a level of conflicted feelings at betraying his friend. Daniel Harding is not thus far known as a Wagnerian, but this was already a fine account of the score. Particularly magical were the moments of repose ranging from the rustling leaves before at the beginning of the act and the throbbing sensuousness of "O sink hernieder". As yet the big moments do not have that sense of controlled chaos of a truly great account, but this may well come with time. The LSO played superbly with some ravishing woodwind solos.

Can we hope for the outer acts at a later stage? Maybe, if that happens, with a modicum of staging and some more atmospheric lighting?

- Sebastian Petit


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