Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Salle Pleyel, Paris, Saturday October 13 2012.

Conductor: Mikko Franck . Isolde: Nina Stemme. Tristan: Christian Franz. Brangäne: Sarah Connolly. Melot: Richard Berkeley-Steele. Kurwenal: Detlef Roth. King Marke: Peter Rose. Young Sailor: Pascal Bourgeois. Shepherd: Christophe Poncet. Steersman: Renaud Derrien. Chorus of Radio France. Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.

There isn't much you can say about an evening of this kind, that has the whole Salle Pleyel on its feet at the end, bawling "Bravo!" (the French don't bother much with such niceties as "Brava" and "Bravi") and clapping rhythmically. I was reminded of a madman who used to be on one of several classical music forums I quit and often used the expression "in a zone", pinched, I think, from the world of sport. There are times, if you're really lucky, when a performance seems to move on to a trance-like plane, mesmerising the audience: in a zone. This was one. Though I always go to Tristan dragging my feet somewhat, not being as big a Wagner maniac as some ("maniac" being the operative word) and usually egged on by friends who like him better, in fact I've had luck with it over the years. But never quite to last night's extent.

Nina Stemme's possession of the role is as total as Deborah Voigt's was; but Voigt's voice was cool, bright silver, while Stemme's is warm, dark gold, making you wonder how Flagstad sounded live. Not once did the score sound hard to sing, not a single note sounded hard to nail. The "recitatives" were as intimately conversational as the "arias" were round and resounding, without any loss of subtlety in phrasing (and as a result, "off topic" as it may seem, both my neighbour and I thought of Ann Hallenberg's mastery and sense of ease in works of a different kind). The Liebestod was the best I've ever heard, a very rare treat.

Sarah Connolly as Brangäne seemed out to prove that her disappointing performance in Hippolyte et Aricie was an accident: she was truly excellent throughout and her second-act "interpolations" were simply marvellous, her place high up against a side wall bringing out, in Pleyel's quirky acoustics, a gorgeous grain in her timbre. The only quibbles might be that (a) a dark-voiced Isolde paired with a light-voiced Brangäne leads to a lack of contrast and (b) Connolly's voice is, as you might expect, "one size smaller" than Stemme's. But this wasn't an evening for quibbles, especially such minor ones as those.

Christian Franz's approach to the role of Tristan is hard to describe. I remarked at one of the intervals that his way of not singing the part was somehow highly effective. Some people must hate his short phrasing and clever use of Sprechgesang instead of clearly-sung top notes*. But that sounds bad, as if he were one of the barking-and-braying sort of Heldentenor, and he wasn't: his timbre is bright and ringing (like what I call a "Janacek tenor")  and he most certainly has some very fine notes; and even in concert he acted his socks off (well, not literally, though by act three he had shed his jacket and pulled his black shirt out of his trousers) and the fragile, wounded, deeply human Tristan he made was convincing and affecting.

Peter Rose was a relatively light, clear Marke, bullet-headed and buttoned up to the neck in a dark Mao-collared coat, and Richard Berkeley-Steele - who looked oddly like Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave - was a committed, clarion Melot. Both, again, acted up a storm, so it was quite funny to see Detlef Roth not visibly acting at all but, when not sitting with his eyes closed as if meditating, standing impassively and observing the conductor, but putting all the drama into his phrasing, Lieder-style, reminding me and, as it turned out when I mentioned it, my neighbour too, of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Mikko Franck is exactly the kind of conductor I like. He was clearly in charge, precise in his cues, visibly in contact with the players and having a whale of a time. He conducted with the kind of straightforward drive I go for and so often complain I go without. Bright, clear sound and no fiddle-arsing around. The orchestra members stamped their feet thunderously when it was his turn to take a bow, and they'd certainly played as if they liked him - an important point in France.

It isn't often you get an evening of opera as excellent as this - as the name of my blog implies. Maybe I should keep a closer eye on the programmes at Pleyel. But if I do go back there, I won't be going back to the Brasserie Lorraine round the corner: I might (or is that may?) as well have spent half as much on a better steak at the Hippotamus across the street. Parisians will know what I mean...

*Apparently he was ill.  I didn't see him coughing or sucking pastilles, but others did.


  1. Was there last evening and yes at the beginning i hated the Sprechgesang by Franz. But then I saw him cross the stage to tell Stemme to kill him with his sword and still singing and giving stereophonic effect to the audience for the radio (the concert was broadcasted live). I told myself he must have thought the role over and over again. No score for him. And such intelligence in the role.
    In act II he did it again as he called "Isolde" again turning his back to the microphones then slowly pivoting so that the audience in Pleyel and on air can feel as if he was running from outside to Isolde.
    The Sprechgesang disappeared in act III though so we can mourn his past with him.

  2. I was unaware of Franz indisposition and as my last 2 tristans have been Heppner (!) I found his totally committed singing and forward diction admirable. For me Stemme is incomparable as Isolde with all the regal scorn in Act 1 and organ like rich tones throughout her range. It was a shame that we had the customary cut in the love duet.
    I wondered whether Connolyl should move up a fach, as I could certainly imagine her as Sieglinde.

    I greatly admired Franck's big boned weighty conducting such a relief after the recent fussy Wagner lite we have been getting.

  3. Wagner is amazing and his "Tristan and Isolde" always was one of my favourites! Despite on the fact I usually prefer French composers like Debussy, I still like Wagner, his compositions are great!


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