Sunday 4 October 2020

Tristan und Isolde, London Opera Company, 3 October 2020

The Warehouse, Waterloo

Tristan – Brian Smith Walters
Isolde – Cara McHardy
Brangäne – Harriet Williams
Kurwenal – Louis Hurst
King Marke – Richard Wiegold
Young Sailor – Ben Thapa
Melot – Jonathan Cooke
Shepherd, Steersman – Bo Wang

Jonathan Musgrave (piano)
James Widden (violin)
Alison Holford (cello)
Michael Thrift (conductor)

Almost a year to the day (5 October 2019) since I had last seen Tristan und Isolde and considerably sooner, given the world’s catastrophic state, than I had anticipated, Wagner and Tristan returned to my life and to the lives of the performers of the London Opera Company, here giving its inaugural performance. For any company to open proceedings with Tristan is a declaration of intent, not least in London, so starved of Wagner compared to any city of its stature. Yet, this group of musicians determined not so much to keep the flame burning as, in contradistinction to its eponymous lovers, emphatically to ignite it—‘Das Licht! Das Licht!—showed a heroism as impressive and as moving in achievement as in conception. It is their hope that this will ‘inspire further chamber performances’; it should be ours too.

There were unquestionable advantages to a small performing space such as The Warehouse, near Waterloo station. No singer needing to force his or her voice. Facial expressions could readily be observed in a performance acted if not staged. We in the audience were readily drawn into the noumenal realm of Night in which Tristan's deepest action unfolds. So much Wagner is chamber music anyway; as with Liszt, that chamber music is usually part of a grander scheme rather than the essence of a work in itself. 

Michael Thrift conducted, as he had in a slightly larger-scale Parsifal given four years ago in Chiswick a flexible, clearly directed account of the score. It may from time to time have had one long to hear him communicate such understanding in front of an orchestra; equally, it seized on the virtues of a chamber performance and had one appreciate them in themselves. Jonathan Musgrave’s heroic battle to convey Wagner’s orchestral writing on the piano, ably assisted by James Widden on violin and Alison Holford on cello, made for absorbing listening. Even Liszt would have had his work cut out here. Yet it was perhaps the Lisztian delicacy accorded to more intimate moments and passages—private, not public; Night, not Day—that lingered longest in the emotional memory.

Brian Smith Walters, Parsifal in that earlier performance, showed himself here as Tristan every inch a Heldentenor. As vividly communicative in words as in music, Smith Walters paced his performance wisely, with as keen a developmental edge as any listener might wish for, culminating in shattering agonies of Kareol and sweetly longed-for release. For all the surrounding metaphysics, this was a profoundly human journey: proportionate to, yet far from constrained by, a chamber setting  that increasingly took upon itself characteristics of the nineteenth-century drawing rooms in which Wagner's own dramatic journey had taken flight. Likewise Cara McHardy’s performance as Isolde. Similarly reactive to dramatic circumstance, her path to ecstatic transfiguration excited in the uncertainty of the here-and-now, yet proved commendably clear in retrospect. Wagner's owl of Minerva once again spread its wings at dusk.

In this chamber context, the performances of McHardy and Harriet Williams as Brangäne afforded an unusual first-act opportunity to hear some of the roots of Wagner’s vocal writing in earlier, Italian or at least Italianate, opera. Shorn of rich orchestral tapestry, the score, or better one’s aural perspective upon it, yielded other secrets: words and their meaning, steeped in Novalis's verse as much as the philosophy of Schopenhauer, often overlooked amidst the musicodramatic maelstrom; a grander bel canto than we have come to expect, Wagner’s Norma, rather than Bellini’s; not to forget those treacherous, enticing paths to a Schoenbergian future for voice with ensemble. Williams’s performance, wise and compassionate, with deeply affecting vocal colour—at one point, chalumeau-like in her lower register—had this listener long for more.

Moreover, not only was there no weak link in the cast; strength of ensemble and dramatic interaction rendered it considerably more than the sum of its parts. Louis Hurst’s honest Kurwenal; finely etched accounts of the Young Sailor and Melot from Ben Thapa and Jonathan Cooke; Richard Wiegold’s sonorous King Marke, timbre and delivery redolent at times of noble Finnish predecessors such as Martti Talvela and Matti Salminen: all were valued contributors. It was, however, the keenly communicative qualities Bo Wang’s Shepherd and Steersman that made the greatest impression on me: nothing taken for granted, all presented with palpable sincerity and commitment. Above all, this was an accomplished and moving company debut.