Even the world’s most elite opera houses would struggle to stage a production of Tristan und Isolde in the middle of The Ring, and so it is surely with some pride that the BBC Proms succeeded in scheduling a concert performance of the opera in the midst of its Daniel Barenboim Ring Cycle. It was placed in between the performances of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung precisely because Wagner broke off writing the former for fourteen years after completing Act II, over which time he wrote Tristan along with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Short of jamming the work right in the middle of The Ring’s third opera, this was the most logical place to put it.
It is well known that, in contrast to the predominantly diatonic world of the early Ring, chromaticism lies at the heart of Tristan, but hearing all of the works so closely together still helped to illuminate many points of comparison that might otherwise have been missed. Much of Tristan and Isolde’s Act II love duet feels similar to Siegfried’s first encounter with Brünnhilde on the rock, and not only from a musical perspective, since both couples declare that they are one person. At the same time, Tristan and Isolde’s belief that death is preferable to any solution that does not see them together seems similar to the sentiments expressed earlier by Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre.
Unlike The Ring Cycle, which advertised itself as semi-staged, this was arguably a more conventional concert performance, although good use was still made of the Albert Hall’s unique infrastructure. The Young Sailor (Andrew Staples) found a reasonable substitute for a masthead from which to sing in the form of the Hall’s gallery, Brangäne delivered her warning from the battlements perched behind Henry Wood’s bust, and at certain points instrumental soloists and groups played away from the main stage. The singers generally adopted the approach of portraying interactions with other characters, only directing their gestures towards the audience rather than at each other, although there was some variation. For example, Tristan and Isolde sang on opposite sides of the conductor’s podium in their long Act II encounter until the original stage directions required him to draw her down a bank and lay his head on her arm, at which point they simply moved to be together.
Whereas The Ring Cycle was performed by the Staatskapelle Berlin, Tristan und Isolde was taken by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Semyon Bychkov, and it was interesting to compare the differing approaches of these two equally accomplished conductors. Both demonstrate remarkable precision and attention to detail, but while one senses that with Barenboim it is his own particular interpretation of the music that makes his performances what they are, Bychkov seems to penetrate so deeply what is written on the page that all of the textures, subtleties and nuances come out through the depth of his analysis. If, when described like this, the dichotomy sounds small or nebulous, it certainly results in very different sounds, both of which prove equally effective in their own way.
Without exception, the cast was superb. Violeta Urmana was a sumptuously voiced Isolde, the richness in her sound being matched by high levels of precision and clarity. As Tristan, Robert Dean Smith had a pleasing clean voice that proved capable of opening out to a remarkable degree. As Brangäne, Mihoko Fujimura’s vibrant mezzo-soprano sent shock waves through the audience with its remarkable beauty and power; her performance of ‘Einsam wachend in der Nacht’ was a real highlight of the evening. Kwangchul Youn was exceptional as King Marke as his bass voice was revealed to possess a wide range of interesting nuances while Boaz Daniel was an effective Kurwenal. If a few Promenaders saw Tristan und Isolde as presenting the opportunity to take a night off and rest their legs in the middle of The Ring, Bychkov, the BBCSO and all of the cast ensured that the performance of this opera stood out as exceptional in its own right.
Wagner’s Tannhäuser appears at the Proms on 4 August and Parsifal on 25 August, while Anna Caterina Antonacci sings the Wesendonck-Lieder on 22 August.
For further information on these and all BBC Proms click here.