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Tristan und Isolde

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall  

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 of abstraction.  

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 effects.  

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.

- Simon Thomas


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