By Colleen Chesterman
On the night of 19 November 2016, a packed audience in the Federation Concert Hall in Hobart heard Swedish soprano Nina Stemme and Australian tenor Stuart Skelton perform an abridged concert version of Wagner’s magnificent Tristan und Isolde under the baton of Marko Letonja, conducting the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
The two singers had most recently performed the opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The one-off performance was organised through the fortunate chance of a shared agent between conductor and soprano. [See below for an alternative account of the setting up of the event—Ed.] Letonja adapted the music by focusing on the emotional and musical highpoints in each act and the surtitles and summaries of events were made by Anthony Ernst. In his program note Robert Gibson drew our attention to excerpts from Cosima Wagner’s diary where Wagner expresses a wish to make the opera shorter and certainly the performance carried the focus of the story. The only other singer was Slovenian mezzo Monika Bohinec, who sang as Brangäne in her interaction with Isolde in bringing the potion in Act 1 and in her off-stage warnings in Act 2.
The large audience, with many members of the Wagner Society in NSW, was very enthusiastic about the success of the sensitive adaptation, which brought together the emotional highlights of the opera, as well as the playing of the augmented TSO, the conducting of Letonja and the sublime voices and skilled acting of the two leads. The whole audience leapt to its feet to applaud at the end. Buoyed by the performance we went back to our hotel with other Sydneysiders to celebrate with a glass of champagne, and were thrilled when the musicians, conductor and singers came back for a party, so that we were able to applaud the performers face to face. Letonja will conduct Stemme in her performance as Brünnhilde in Stockholm next May, though sadly she told us that she couldn’t get tickets for her family!
You can get or relive the excitement of the night in photos on the TSO’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/media/set/?s et=a.10154769003693336.1073741873.126146968335&type =1&l=3fcb48e27c
As part of the background for the wonderful coup staged by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Leo Schofield wrote a note for the Tasmanian Times: “Being a certified Wagner nut myself (I’ve seen the Ring nineteen times and introduced it on ABC television) I understand something of Wagner’s appeal, which is why, over a dinner at Ethos restaurant in Hobart in March, 2014, I pricked up my ears when I heard the name of the Swedish opera star Nina Stemme, the world’s most acclaimed Wagner soprano, whom I had recently heard singing Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the famous Vienna State Opera and I had been bowled over.
“My host at dinner that evening was Marko Letonja, the principal conductor and musical director of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and the other guest was the maestro’s agent from Zurich, Rita Schütz who is also Ms Stemme’s agent. I became unusually excited and proposed an exclusive Australian debut by Ms Stemme in Hobart. And as she was scheduled to sing Isolde with the Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, it seemed like a good idea that they combine with the TSO in a concert version of Wagner’s great romantic opera.”
To paraphrase Leo Schofield “And so, on November 19, it [came] to pass, not a concert version of the full opera, that proved too expensive, but an evening of great moments of a musical masterpiece.”
Read Leo Schofield’s full account of his role in this coup, go to: http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php/article/tristan-und- isolde-#sthash.EjimIrUH.dpuf for 5 April 2016.