Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Who Are They? Tristan Und Isolde Act II Barbican

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Who Are They? Tristan Und Isolde Act II Barbican

Article excerpt

There aren't many operas from which you can extract a single act and make a concert of it, in fact I can't think of any except ones by Wagner. I've been to Act I of Die Walkure, Act III of Die Meistersinger, Act III of Parsifal at the Proms, Act II of Lohengrin, and several times to Act II of Tristan und Isolde.

It's not that Wagner's acts tend to be longer than anyone else's, they don't: Handel's often last as long, so do Rossini's. It's rather that some of Wagner's greatest acts are so rich in musical and dramatic material, so perfectly shaped and have so powerful an impact, quite apart from being extremely demanding of their performers, that it is a luxury to be able to give them all you've got and not have to look forward, after an interval of chat and drink, to another draining 80 minutes.

Act II of Tristan would seem to be, perhaps more than any of the others, an ideal case. In the past three or four years we've had it under Rattle at the Proms, under Jurowski, and now, at the Barbican, coupled with Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, under Daniel Harding. On each occasion I have had mixed feelings, up to a point independently of the merits or otherwise of the performance. The one I responded to most ardently was the Prom under Simon Rattle, where the tenor was virtually voiceless, the conducting electrifying.

I suppose that the reason that Act II is thought to be so excerptable is that it has the love duet, which apparently is most people's favourite part of the work. Yet it is the part that is hardest to bring off. It's not only a matter of its immense proportions - about 40 minutes, if it doesn't have the heinous cut that is still common, ten minutes of inspired and indispensable music - but of the series of climaxes, which have to be impeccably scaled if it's not to turn into a shapeless though exciting mess. The opening few minutes, as Tristan arrives and the lovers are incoherent with ecstasy and relief, can more or less look after themselves. The long passage where the lovers accuse Day of all their sufferings and misdeeds is particularly brilliantly scored, but needs to be shaped as a long decrescendo. The central passage, up to the extraordinary line 'Then I myself am the world', requires both delicacy and an enormous climax. Brang£ne's watch song is probably the most sheerly beautiful music in the entire score.

Then follows the philosophical discussion that leads Tristan to his priestly intoning of 'So might we then together die', and a long build-up until caution should seem to be blown away in the lovers' rapture, something that I have only heard brought off in the theatre by Reginald Goodall. …

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