The Philharmonia Orchestra has been touring a fascinating presentation of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to several prestigious locations, including Lucerne and Dortmund, and ending at its home base in London’s Royal Festival Hall.
But many national critics chose not to wait to see the show in their metropolitan comfort zone, but came up instead for the UK premiere of the concept in Birmingham – and every one of their reviews has been ecstatic, acknowledging not only the excellence of this semi-staged performance, but also the logistic and acoustic versatility of this matchless venue.
And the reason for their pilgrimage is obvious: the personality of Symphony Hall itself, not just with its peerless acoustic, but also taking the part of an extra character in such large-scale enterprises.
In this artistic staging by Peter Sellars its various galleries became a watch-tower for Brangaene (the warm-voiced Anne Sofie von Otter) from which to warn the illicit lovers, a cliff-top for Joshua Ellicott’s look-out Shepherd (a small role, but so telling here), and its top tier aft housed the sailors (Philharmonia Voices) on deck hailing landfall in Cornwall. To all this was added a subtle use of lighting for both atmosphere and emphasis.
The huge stage not only accommodated the vast orchestra comfortably. It also housed a huge screen projecting Bill Viola’s famous commentary of visual images responding to the implications of the opera.
Most of the time during these four-plus hours I found these irritating – superfluous, distracting, gratuitous, sometimes verging on adolescence (and anyone in the stalls wanting to sweep their sightlines upwards to read the surtitles would have to brave the pictures on the way).
But everything was redeemed in the stunning, beautiful, moving video accompanying the Liebestod, where the spirits of Tristan and Isolde melted into one in a way their bodies never could, and where Esa-Pekka Salonen shaped, balanced and guided his tremendous orchestra with all the sense of pace, direction and transparency he had unobtrusively summoned all evening.
We were left with a powerful stage-picture, too: Violeta Urmana’s Isolde subsiding with all the control and dignity of her entire performance, Gary Lehman’s Tristan lying dead at last after tribulations so powerfully expressed, and Matthew Best’s sorrowing, compassionate King Marke sadly bestowing one last blessing on these two people he had loved most in all the world.