Sunday 28 July 2013

Tristan und Isolde Prom Urmana Bychkov

A stunning triumph for Violetta Urmana in Wagner Tristan und Isolde Prom 19 at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Luscious, resplendent timbre, superb mastery of phrase and timbre. Urmana 's voice glowed with magnificent richness. But even more impressive was her characterization. This Isolde truly comes from a long line of Queens with superhuman powers to heal and perhaps to destroy. She knows potions, spells and herbal lore. For all we know Isolde is a distant heir to Erda and the goddesses of the Earth. Urmana's beautiful tone suggests richness  and beauty. But Urmana is a true artist who can create depths to a part through the intelligence of her interpretation. Isolde is beautiful, but her true beauty lies in her intelligence and inner attributes.

Once, Isolde brought Tristan back from death. It was her moral duty, though he'd killed the man she loved. Marke wants her because she'll be the crowning asset of his kingdom. Once mistress of her own realm, she's now a slave. For a free spirit like Isolde that is more humiliating than death. When Urmana sings the long recitatives in Act I, her voice glowers with Isolde's pain. But Isolde is strong. Urmana sings her lines almost like an ancient incantation, expressing Isolde's resolute dignity.

Tristan und Isolde isn't really about love. Their relationship is thorny. She hates him. He too has a death wish, which has followed him like a shroud since childhood. When the potion takes hold, they are transformed as if by magic into hyper versions of themselves. They snatch a night of love, but even then the murmuring swell in the orchestra reminds us of the ocean, a force of nature greater than all mortals. Art the end, Isolde is restored to her true destiny. Urmana sings the Mild und Liese so it feels like a valediction. Isolde may have lost her man but she she's now in a kind of apotheosis, her powers enhanced by this harrowing experience of life and love. Listen to the broadcast of this Prom HERE for a masterclass in singing and interpretation.

Semyon Bychkov conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, creating an Einleitung that shimmered with transparent textures. Could we hear light dancing on waves and feel the mist of sea spray? Can we imagine the "Irish child" in her free element? But the undertow reminded us of the tides and the inexorable motion of the seas. With each new surge, what had been before is changed. Bychov brings out the beauty in the score, but also its undercurrent of instability and darkness.  The music, and the oceans, have a pulse like the human heart. The pulse beats even when the orchestra falls quiet. It's a metaphor for life and death. The Yong Seaman (Andrew Staples) sang from a gallery way up in the dome of the Royal Albert Hall, his voice radiating over long distances., Later, Brangäne (Mihoko Fujimura) would sing from the organ loft, and the flautist who played the Shepherd's song would stand near the choir stalls. Throughout the opera, this sense of freedom contrasts with containment. Bychov's touch is refined, almost like Haitink's, but his tempi ebb and flow as strongly as the tides. 

Robert Dean Smith sang Tristan. He gets the notes and charms, but projection was at times a problem. Bychov restrained the orchestra so he could be heard over the surge. Fortunately, the crucial passages in the Third Act are bleak, relatively unemcumbered ny musical background. Dean Smith then came into his own, expressing Tristan's sense of desolation. When Ben Heppner sang the part in 2009, his voice was ravaged by illness in real life, but his portrayal was even more poignant as a result. Tristan doesn't really open himself up to his deepest feelings until he faces death. Robert Dean Smith's finest moments happened when they counted.

Kwangchul Youn was an outstanding King Marke. Youn sings with remarkable agility for a voice centred so low in the register. His voice has authority but his phrasing is flexible, and he adds nuance and colour to create the King as a complex personality, almost as interesting as Isolde herself. Marke has real moral values. When he learns the truth, he doesn't care what other people like Melot (David Wilson-Johnson) think. He sacrifices his status to do what its right and good. Youn develops Marke's journey towards understanding, from the upright king at the end of Act 2 to the sensitive, noble father figure he becomes in the end.  Youn isn't a very physical person, but acts with his voice better than most.

Mihoko Fujimura's Brangäne was powerfully expressive, an excellent match for Urmana''s Isolde. Brangäne is a strong personality, prepared to switch potions and defy her mistress. Fujimura's voice rings out beautifully, clear rich tones, so elegant that she must be Urmana's near-equal, not a mere maid. Boaz Daniel sang a good Kurnewal, and Edward Price the Steersman. Altogether, these were the best all-round vocal performances so far of this Proms season, notwithstanding the sort of blips and weaknesses which come with the territory in "hard sings" like Tristan und Isolde.

ADDENDUM  I spoke too soon, before Barenboim's astonishing Götterdämmerung, (reviewed here) which must surely be a Prom no-one who was there will ever forget. Violeta Urmana's Isolde was so wonderful that it put me is such a good mood that I was prepared to overlook a Tristan who could not be heard. So Isolde worked her magic and saved Tristan yet again.

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