The finer performances of Tristan und Isolde have a way of sounding like a four-hour improvisation, the fruit of a single moment of inspiration that makes one forget how emotionally manipulative and painstakingly crafted the music really is.
A 2009 revival from Glyndebourne on the festival’s label does quite nicely in this regard, balancing secure and expressive singing by Torsten Kerl, Anja Kampe and Sarah Connolly with a transparent accompaniment by Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic that captures the opera’s shifting moods and the beguiling musical lines. Like Marek Janowski, the Russian maestro is less concerned with overwhelming the audience with epic sound or tragic intensity than with letting Wagner’s melodic ideas and forceful climaxes tell the story.
The production dates from 2003 and was the first Wagner seen on the Sussex Downs since festival founder John Christie staged a concert performance of Die Meistersinger excerpts in the late 1920s. There is a palpable sense of sorrow, as if the principals grasp that death is the only way out of the hopeless entanglement they find themselves in. In the title roles, Kerl and Kampe show a strong emotional connection to what the other is singing, providing an added degree of intimacy that’s appropriate for the festival’s cozy 1,200-seat theater.
Focusing on the psychological drama would seem like a no-brainer for an opera with so little outward action. What makes this revival especially effective are the vivid contributions from the singers in the secondary roles. Connolly, not especially known for her Wagner chops, is a riveting Brangäne, floating her creamy, alto-like voice to great effect in the middle act’s “Einsam wachen in der Nacht” and believably hovering between distress and resignation as she tends to the dying Isolde in the final scene. There’s a sisterly concern between the women, particularly in the Act 1 exchanges, that leave you almost believing they’re equals instead of a princess and her attendant.
Georg Zeppenfeld is a dignified King Marke, using excellent diction and bel canto sensibilities to compensate for a smallish voice as he grieves at his beloved knight’s betrayal. Andrzej Dobber‘s baritone turns hard in spots but raises Kurwenal’s dramatic profile by revealing the utter commitment behind his relationship with Tristan. Trevor Scheunemann‘s Melot sounds conniving without veering into caricature. There also are small but important contributions from Peter Gijsbertsen as the sailor, Andrew Kennedy as the shepherd and Richard Mosley-Evans as the steersman.
Kampe, an accomplished Sieglinde and Senta, seems to view Isolde as more of an impressionable young woman than an icy princess, somewhat in the feminine spirit of Helga Dernesch. Her top range can sound unruly and monochromatic, and there are clipped high notes during the Act 1 narrative and curse. But she’s also capable of stunning bursts of immediacy, almost thinking aloud when Tristan offers his sword to avenge her murdered lover and, at the beginning of Act 2, excitedly beckoning to him before descending into embrace. She had plenty of power left for the spacious Liebestod, churning out intensifying expressions of passion and ending on a perhaps not quite delicate enough F-sharp. It’s a portrayal filled with conviction, even if the voice won’t suit some tastes.
Kerl turns in one of his finer performances, sounding unhinged yet musically precise during Tristan’s Act 3 deliriums and youthfully exuberant after parttaking in the love portion in the Act 1 finale. Though the quality of his tone doesn’t come close to some of the best exponents of the role, the secure top, intelligent phrasing and sense of involvement make for an affecting turn worthy of the audience’s enthusiastic reception.
The biggest heroes, though, are Jurowski and the orchestra, who deliver a finely etched account of the score that has a sense of forward momentum without stinting the opera’s extended, almost timeless episodes. As was the case with his 2011 Meistersinger, this is a kind of intimate romanticism with a heavy emphasis on personal expression that won’t drown the listener in pathos. Those who find it cool or uninspired will probably still appreciate his sense of structure and proportion, and the airy, uncongested dynamic that pervades the 3 hour 47 minute performance. The recording wonderfully captures soft dynamics in the strings and the raw power of the climaxes, with fine balance between the stage and pit.
It’s an open question how well this cast would fare in a larger house. But the account offers further proof that this oft-performed masterpiece still offers lots of opportunities for discovery without straying from a bona fide Wagnerian framework.