Despite my love of almost all of Wagner, I find ‘Tristan and Isolde’ a repellent opera, a self-indulgent vehicle into which the composer spills his determined longings to achieve his own aims at the expense of others.
So many people are killed or hurt during the course of these would-be adulterous events (too much agonising sophistry over the word “and” when the lovers do eventually get the chance to be alone together), but they are all discarded as necessary victims as we focus on the “love-death” of the eponymous characters who have done nothing to endear themselves to us.
And Wagner was a fine one to preach about perfect love, dallying with other men’s wives, at last stealing the wife of one of his greatest supporters and bullying her into total devotion -- but continuing to seduce singers and servants..
But the repulsiveness of the subject-matter aside, the music is amazing, and the CBSO under Andris Nelsons gave it an incandescent reading on Saturday to a packed house where the atmosphere of tense anticipation was released at the end into a prolonged standing ovation (though braying applause came far too soon, Nelsons’ eloquent arms still raised in final contemplation).
The orchestra relished the opportunity to reveal what a responsive, flexible, sonorous and delicate opera orchestra it is (Paris will get the chance to experience this in a few days’ time). Noble brass (including offstage horns relishing the hall’s resources), vocally communicative woodwind (fabulous cor anglais solos), and strings both sweeping and supportive delivered the score with immense enthusiasm -- and Nelsons, conducting most of the time with his right hand only (Boult, his great predecessor at the orchestra’s helm, was certainly looking down approvingly), shaped and moulded all the phrases in what is essentially a huge symphonic poem with vocal obbligati.
And the singers were uniformly magnificent: Lioba Braun such a warm-voiced Isolde, her Act One Narration well-paced, her Liebestod building to a cathartic climax, and with such vivid body-language; Stephen Gould’s well-supported tones much less barking than some other heldentenors, and so sweetly nuanced; Matthew Best’s King Marke sorrowingly authoritative; Christianne Stotjin a Brangaene of genuine personality, her watch-tower warnings shimmering with moonlit mystery: Brett Polegato conveying all of Kurwenal’s bluff decency.
Whatever my feelings about the opera, this performance left me exhilarated and moved by the zeal, professionalism and sheer joy of collaboration which has gone into the project.