Tristan und Isolde (BBC Proms)

Wagner fans are spoilt for choice at this year’s BBC Proms, with seven of his full-length operas on offer. While the hard-working Daniel Barenboim and his Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra took a well-earned breather from their Ring Cycle, Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra filled the gap between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung with Tristan und Isolde, a neat piece of programming that placed the three operas in their order of composition.

Violeta Urmana as Isolde
Violeta Urmana as Isolde
© Chris Christododoulou

“Time becomes space” in Tristan und Isolde, says Wagner. This suggests a lack of urgency, translated by some conductors as a slow plod. Bychkov has a reputation for luxuriant tempi, but there was nothing plodding about this performance. With the BBCSO strings polished to a golden sheen and warmly rounded brass he thrust forward the passion and sensuality of the hot-blooded love affair at the opera’s heart.

Despite a programme credit for a ‘production advisor’, this was a straightforward concert performance with the singers lined up in front of the orchestra. All sang from memory, but often to someone yards away on the other side of the stage. Along with a fan for the sweltering heat and a cushion for the four hours seated, the viewer required a keen imagination.

More effective was Bychkov’s clever use of the Royal Albert Hall’s idiosyncratic layout. The first voice we heard was the Sailor’s. The lilting melody of his homesick song floated down in otherworldly fashion from the rafters where tenor Andrew Staples was tucked away. Alison Teale’s beautiful third act cor anglais solo came from the high stageside steps.

Mihoko Fujimura delivered Brangäne’s warning to the illicit couple from the organ loft high behind the orchestra. With her plush, effortless volume, the petite Japanese mezzo proved that a big voice doesn’t demand a big body. As the cuckolded King Marke, veteran bass Kwangchul Youn reinforced that message with the generous sound that emerged from his slight frame.

Robert Dean Smith, a late replacement for Peter Seiffert, is lighter-voiced than the traditional Tristan. This is a benefit in the many lyrical passages, where his flexible tenor allows subtle phrasing and colouring that a more stentorian voice could never manage. He never forced his tone and completed his vocal marathon seemingly as fresh as he began.

But Semyon Bychkov made no allowances for vocal delicacy, and Smith was swallowed up by the orchestra the minute their volume was raised. He wasn’t helped by the difficult acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, which favours orchestras more than voices – apart from the over-loud choir, that is. This is one aspect in which radio listeners at home have the advantage over those of us in the hall, as the BBC engineers can usually find a way to rebalance the recorded sound.

Violeta Urmana’s more substantial voice survived the orchestral onslaught better, though her velvety soprano often turned harsh as she raised volume or pitch. Away from the battle, she made a warm, seductive Isolde, capping her performance with a glassily serene Liebestod.

– Jenny Beeston