Opera Review: Tristan und Isolde - Welsh National Opera - Wales Millenium Centre Cardiff

Tristan und Isolde
Welsh National Opera

There are some evenings, which transcend one’s expectations, one’s surroundings, and even an infuriatingly fidgety audience, many of whom appeared to be auditioning for one of opera’s many dying consumptives. In many ways, this was one of those evenings.

Most importantly, the performance marked the UK debut of Ann Petersen as Isolde - I have seen many great Isoldes in my time and Petersen bids fair to rank with the best. She has a voice that encompasses every aspect of the role from top notes hurled out into the auditorium down to the finest spun pianissimo. She also has a startlingly original take on the role, playing her very young, almost a teenager. This was especially telling in Act I when her girlish delight in the potions chest was truly chilling. When one considers it, her approach (or her director’s) makes perfect sense : Young love is an all consuming, ravaging, dangerous passion and those in its thrall can easily believe that one could literally die of love. Her Liebestod sung with resplendent power crowned a magnificent assumption. Petersen’s absolute commitment to the role (vocally and dramatically) reminds me of Waltraud Meier and Nina Stemme - I can think of no higher praise. She sings Freia at the Royal Opera this Autumn - I would expect bigger roles very soon.

Ben Heppner has had a few hard years battling with vocal problems - These were particularly in evidence at his recent London Tristans where he battled to keep control of his instrument. This performance was a very significant return to form. There were a few pitch problems in Act II and he suffered to the point of shouting in Act III. However, there were long passages of splendid singing and his Act III was harrowing and ultimately deeply moving - His painful stagger towards Isolde before dying at her feet was one of several moments which moved me to tears.

Susan Bickley, despite a few squalls in the upper register, remains an excellent Brangäne. Her tower warnings, especially the second, were beautifully sung. The relationship with Isolde was very well drawn with the maid acting as substitute mother for the wilful Irish Princess. Matthew Best was recently seen as König Marke in the Salonen/Philharmonia performances. That performance was very well received - If anything this was even better. Beautifully sung, but never downplaying the anguish of the betrayed uncle and husband, his Act II monologue was a highlight of the evening.

Philip Joll was a sympathetic bear of a Kurwenal. There were occasional rough patches at the top but he is so utterly under the skin of the role that these seem unimportant. There was excellent support from Simon Thorpe as a conflicted, almost sympathetic Melot and Simon Crosby Buttle as both the Act I Sailor and the Act III Shepherd.

Janis Kokkos’ production (shared with Scottish Opera) is a blessed relief after the horrors of Tristan productions at Bayreuth and other addresses somewhat closer to home. Like the superb Glyndebourne production, it tells the story clearly using simple, evocative sets and excellent lighting and constantly provides fresh insights to the characters without ever forcing Wagner’s drama into irrelevant concepts or bizarre twists.

Lothar Koenigs added another Wagnerian blockbuster to his roster after his wonderful Meistersinger. He is already deeply immersed in the complexities of the score and there were many standout moments - I don’t think I have ever heard the searing pain of the awakening after drinking the love potion so startlingly conveyed. Also memorable was the grey desolation of the Act III prelude conveying the deep despair that is the dark heart of this astonishing section of the score. A very distinguished debut and an interpretation that will undoubtedly deepen even further.

All in all a wonderful evening particularly notable for Petersen’s Isolde and Heppner’s return to form.