Reviews: 'Tristan und Isolde', November 2016

Tristan und Isolde, Hobart 2016

Tristan und Isolde - Hobart, Tasmania
By Colleen Chesterton

Tristan und Isolde - Metropolitan Opera
By Minnie Briggs


Triumphant reprise of the Stemme/Skelton 'Tristan und Isolde' in Hobart, Tasmania 2016
By Colleen Chesterton

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:


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: 5 April 2016.



'Tristan und Isolde' at the New York Metropolitan Opera

By Minnie Briggs

I saw the last two performances at the Met conducted by Asher Fisch, and the High Definition film at the Dendy cinema, really just to hear Simon Rattle in the pit. It was wonderful to be back in the Met, after more than 25 years, seeing the people, the glamour, the house, those chandeliers rising up before the start, breathtaking. And on the back of the seat in front of me were subtitles/surtitles, in both English and German. I chose to look at the German, when I looked, just to have the words together with what was being sung. It was said that they were funded by a famous crook, now in jail! A rich crook. And speaking of rich, a glass of champagne costs $20 and is served in pretty plastic glasses, which I fear are not recycled.


Too much has been said about the dark production byTreliński, filled with non sequiturs, and with little relation to the story or the music, and never about the fact that all the critics and commentators described the opening projection as a huge nautical compass, when it is in fact a radar screen, not a compass, which, like much else, bears no relation to the opera.


The Met orchestra is beyond compare, all agree, and with Simon Rattle at the lead, better than best. Something about a super maestro at the head of a super orchestra producing superb music. He had studied the score that Mahler had used, and said that balance and transparency, allowing the instruments to play out to beyond the end, was an important aspect he absorbed.


It is impossible to compare the sound of the live performance with the film but there is no question that Asher Fisch came on very clear and bright, and often too strong, overplaying Skelton. His second, and their last, performance he pulled way back and Skelton had a better time of it. Rattle at the movie was a rounder sound, while clear and true.


Nina Stemme, in her nearly 100th performance and Stuart in his first [at the Met Opera – Editor], were wonderfully and quite incredibly matched, as old timers Rene Pape as King Marke and Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne and newcomer to the role of Kurwenal Evgeny Nikitin were richly and well played. I was surprised and delighted to note the small differences in the individual performances over the three productions, in the movements, the acting, the expressions and even the voices of the singers. The orchestra was more of a complete perfection in detail, in every performance.


I was also surprised to confess how much I appreciated the film version. The interviews, while superficial, are revealing and sympathetic and informative—what fun to meet the Puerto Rican English Horn player! The close-ups and angles of the filming are often more interesting than—in this case—the very dark uninteresting staging. We are fortunate to live in a world where such performances of the highest calibre are offered. As our Stuart Skelton said, twice, in his interview, "I am a very lucky boy!” We, too.


Then I recalled the production at Bayreuth last summer [2015], the production itself completely forgotten, visually as unmemorable as that of the Met. However, I do remember feeling emotionally drained, people all around with tears running down their faces, and wondered at the lack of emotion, or much less, of the Met performances. In what part of an opera performance does emotion lie, from whence does it come? The music is sublime and contains all, but is it the singers, the conductor, the director who draws out the tears? A couple of years ago, there was a concert performance in Auckland and I must say, the opera really does well without the crazy, distracting complexity added by so many directors, which is a further recommendation for the Stemme/Skelton performance in Hobart later this month.