Tristan und Isolde: Philharmonia Orchestra - Royal Festival Hall, 26 September 2010
This semi-staged production arrived in London at the end of a mini-tour that took in the unholy trinity of Lucerne, Dortmund and Birmingham. No surprise after all that practice to hear unusually disciplined playing from the Philharmonia - barely a note out of place all night. The puffed-up programme note - irritatingly braggadocious as an X Factor contestant - claims it "has the greatest claim of any orchestra to be the UK's national orchestra". Well, on this showing they were certainly the best-rehearsed.
And they needed to be. Soloists, chorus, brass and cor anglais were all periodically dotted around the auditorium, popping up on balconies and in doorways. Esa-Pekka Salonen coordinated them with the skill of an air traffic controller. (Well, he has been conducting this production off and on for six years now). Remarkably (and controversially) he also kept the volume down low enough for every single word to be heard - and these weren't all the world's biggest voices. A braver conductor might have let the music rise up to match and even at times overwhelm the singers, but Salonen seemed determined not to let text lose out to drama. It wasn't the most involving Tristan I've ever heard (not a patch on Pappano's ROH effort last year in that respect) but you couldn't fault the clarity or balance.
His daringly slow prelude almost ground to a halt, but after that Bill Viola's 'video symphony' accompaniment dictated the tempo. A giant screen loomed over the orchestra. Words plucked from the libretto - sea, night, flickering lights - inspired a drifting succession of images. Some were banal, some beautiful in their simplicity, and the final one - a man lowered beneath a torrent of water, played in reverse - a breathtaking embodiment of the music. The ruminative pace, perfectly judged, was enough to compensate for the stillness of the singers without distracting from them.
Gary Lehman was the tireless Tristan, Violeta Urmana a luminous Isolde. Neither of them have the hugest voices, but both have the technique to carry the roles, and in Urmana's case, great vocal beauty as well. Is there anyone else around today who can handle both Isolde and Norma?
Following her justly-praised Waltraute in Salzburg with an intelligent and moving Brangäne tonight, Anne Sofie von Otter is (against the odds) turning into one of the finest Wagnerian singers around. Matthew Best's doleful King Marke and Jukka Rasilainen's sterling Kurwenal were impressive too, with Stephen Gadd's Melot, Joshua Ellicott's Shepherd and Sailor and Darren Jeffery's Helmsman rounding off an unusually good cast.
The only complaint I have is the temperature - why was it colder in the hall than outside?
In the Royal Festival Hall: