Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Tristan und Isolde from The London Opera Company at St John’s, Smith Square

29 October 2022

Act II stood as something special in this highly accomplished performance.

St John's Smith Square

St John’s Smith Square (Photo: St John’s Smith Square)

When Glyndebourne Festival Opera took its concert staging of Tristan und Isolde to the BBC Proms in August 2021, the evening hit the headlines after Simon O’Neill lost his voice and Neal Cooper, who was playing Melot, stepped in to sing the role of Tristan for Act III. Many news reports devoted more space to the fact he is a nephew of the late great boxer Henry Cooper than to any analysis of his performance, but he is an accomplished Tristan in his own right and so this presentation of Wagner’s masterpiece by The London Opera Company provided a welcome opportunity to hear him sing the role from start to finish.

The LOC was founded in the summer of 2020 to give musicians who had lost their work to the COVID-19 pandemic the opportunity to keep performing, and music lovers a treat after a summer devoid of live concerts. Its first performance was a sold out chamber concert of Tristan und Isolde in October 2020, and it went on to present a semi-staged chamber arrangement of Die Walküre in July 2021. This presentation of Tristan at St. John’s, Smith Square featured an orchestra of over sixty that, under the baton of Peter Selwyn who has assisted on Bayreuth and Covent Garden productions of The Ring Cycle, produced an extremely engaging sound. The strings were highly lyrical while the brass and wind were quite forthright, but the two elements complemented each other well. It felt as if we were gaining the best of both worlds as the strong delineation of the various lines was never to the detriment of the output capturing the overall sweep of the music. The ‘hunting’ horns at the start of Act II sounded particularly fine as they performed from the organ loft at the back of the venue, as did the Young Sailor in Act I. The chorus sang from one of the side galleries, as did Brangäne for Act II’s ‘Einsam wachend in der Nacht’, while Act III’s cor anglais was also heard from there.

If all this was highly effective, other aspects of the concert staging were a little less so. With the large orchestra occupying the vast majority of the stage, and the singers confined to a small strip at the front with difficult entrance and exit passages, it was the correct decision not to introduce too much action. However, this meant that what there was had to be spot on, and there felt something slightly hammed about the manner in which Isolde tried to reach for Tristan at the end of Act I as Brangäne restrained her. Similarly, it was not obvious that Tristan deliberately discarded his sword before Melot stabbed him in Act II, or that Kurwenal had even been injured, let alone fatally so, when he fought with the same adversary in Act III.

“…an orchestra of over sixty… produced an extremely engaging sound…”

Scores were used and, although no one was glued to their’s, there were a few moments of hesitancy and the odd occasion when a page turn on the music stand felt quite obvious and distracting. None of this, however, should detract from the fact that for the vast majority of the time the musicians generated the requisite atmosphere extremely well. Act II was particularly effective as the interactions between Cooper’s Tristan and Cara McHardy’s Isolde were poignant without ever feeling overblown. With the scene bathed in red and purple light, they stood on opposite sides of the conductor’s podium for a period before coming together so that the intensity built up in stages. Then as Brangäne sang ‘Habet acht!’ as they turned on the spot in an embrace, it was hard to picture the episode feeling any more moving.

This performance really emphasised the vast chasm that lies between the periods before and after the discovery of the couple in Act II. Prior to it, hearing how deep their love runs, the natural conclusion is that nothing else in the world matters to them. Once they have been discovered, however, it is obvious that society and loyalty are important and cannot be ignored. As the lovers could only stand and listen to Marke, Cooper and McHardy convincingly captured the awkwardness and discomfort that they felt as they knew there was no way of actually arguing against anything he said. This was a performance where in the midst of the ‘before’ phase it was hard to picture the lovers ever being in any other place or frame of mind, while in the ‘after’ period it was equally difficult to believe where they had been only a few minutes earlier.

Neal Cooper was a superb Tristan, with his sound being clear and well shaped, and extremely expansive when it needed to be. Cara McHardy delivered some exceptionally impassioned singing as Isolde, and totally embraced all facets of the role as she wore different dresses in each act. Harriet Williams revealed an immensely full and nuanced mezzo-soprano as Brangäne, while Simon Thorpe displayed a notably rich and engaging baritone as Kurwenal. Simon Wilding, seen as Fafner in Longborough Festival Opera’s production of Siegfried last June, was a moving Marke who captured the dual blow that the King feels in discovering Tristan is (supposedly) disloyal, and realising that he is nothing without the hero’s support. Ben Thapa juggled the roles of Melot, the Young Sailor and the Shepherd to excellent effect, having only stepped in late to sing the latter two, while Henry Wright played his part to the full in the small role of the Steersman.

• For details of all upcoming events at St John’s, Smith Square visit its website.    

• For further information on The London Opera Company visit its website.

• Longborough Festival Opera’s production of Siegfried from June 2022 is available to watch online until 19 February 2023.

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