Tristan und Isolde - CBSO / Nelsons - Symphony Hall Birmingham, 3 March 2012
Forget staged, semi-staged or even notionally visual. The singers were lined up behind their music stands. The conductor was confined to a chair. This was a static Tristan und Isolde, even by concert version standards. But four enthralling hours proved that sometimes the music really is all that matters.
It's not exactly news that Andris Nelsons is an exceptional Wagner conductor. Everything comes down to his grasp of detail. Those broad sweeps and surges are built up from finely judged tempos and infinitely graded dynamics. Not a note passed unconsidered; the music was constantly alive. A halting, reticent overture hinted we might be in for a meditative interpretation, but once the story got going, a powerful theatrical pulse started beating. Symphony Hall's warm acoustic magnified a sumptuous and often thrilling sound, with chorus and sometimes soloists placed above and behind the orchestra to make the most of the hall’s spatial qualities.
Not every Tristan can stay the course, but Stephen Gould’s hefty baritonal tenor was unflagging, even if his attempted soft singing was a tremulous croak craftily disguised as uncontrollable passion. His diction is superb, but for the first two acts he invested more in the music than the words. As he died, he paradoxically came alive, giving his all in the most expressive and committed performance I’ve ever heard from him.
Lioba Braun, sporting a different gown for each act, was attempting (I think) her first Isolde. Better known as a distinguished Brangäne, her darkly tinted middle register is her greatest asset. In the upper reaches she lacks that soprano gleam, and a few of her highest notes were just plain flat. Cool and poised, she had a regal presence if never quite suggesting a woman unhinged by passion or grief.
Christianne Stotijn’s Brangäne had more urgency and vitality, though her clarity was compromised by her prominent vibrato. Brett Polegato was an unusually lyrical Kurwenal. Matthew Best turned a burgeoning wobble to advantage to make a frail and touching King Marke. Ben Johnson and Benedict Nelson filled out the smaller parts with assurance and the CBSO Chorus did a better job than some of the opera company choruses I’ve heard recently.
After 2010’s Lohengrin, this is another impressive addition to the CBSO’s list of Wagner operas. Dare we hope for another one next year, Wagner’s bicentenary?