Friday, 28 September 2012

Wagner. A Review of a Big Opera in Small Pieces

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra perform Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (Act 1)


I go to see the opera, usually Scottish Opera at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, about once a year. Part of the appeal is the grand costumes, the acting, the staging, the wee ice cream tub at the interval (and also it is a night out where I am at the younger end of the audience spectrum for a change). Sometimes opera feels like a Lloyd Webber musical sung in a foreign language, as you wait for Bizet or Puccini's big hit tune to come along. There is a lot of the cast talking through the story to background music between the hits. Wagner I think is more about the musical piece throughout, the music tells the story and sets the tone, and for that he is credited with giving direction and ideas to a lot of 20th Century music.
I've sat through a Wagner opera in full once, years ago, a performance of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. I remember the grand costumes and sets, and I remember it being long, but I couldn't hum you any of the tunes. I've also seen a concert performance of an opera only once before, when Scottish Opera did Georges Bizet's Pearl Fishers in a big hall in Govan 15-odd years ago. Stripped away from the usual operatic paraphernalia the music comes to the centre of the stage. This was the case last night when I went to see the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra perform Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, with chief conductor Donald Runnicles, who reminded me of a well fed David Essex. If done in the full it takes over 5 hours, so for this they've broken it into easily digestible chunks, performing each of the three acts on a separate night, with an accompanying piece of music to highlight some of the themes or inspired by Wagner's music.
Tonight we had Rachmaninov's The Isle of the Dead, a musical poem inspired by seeing a painting by Bocklin of Charon apparently rowing a coffin out to the island of Ponza. The ebbing and flowing of the sound was incredibly evocative and watching the conductor and musicians rise and fall to the music as the storm rose then tailed off I was almost feeling seasick. The big crescendo of the storm was great to hear, and when an orchestra is going full pelt at you it really is an impressive sight and sound. I always feel sorry for the percussionists on these occasions, the one playing the cymbals sat patiently throughout, stood up, did her mighty crash then sat down again. More cymbals Sergei, that'd be my only change, make her work for her money.

After that the sea bound Act 1 of Tristan and Isolde was a calmer affair, to begin with. It's the everyday story of boy meets girl, boy kills girl's fiance, then sends his head on a spike to Ireland, gets his wounds tended by the girl's magic potions and steals her away to be married to his king whilst they both hide their love for each other. Girl arranges maid to give them both deadly tonic but maid swaps it for love juice. Boy and girl swig back their unspoken suicide pact to find birds tweeting overhead as they realise their love for each other. The orchestra clashes and horns blast as they arrive in Cornwall. Surely this is the only piece of theatre that ends with a fantastic crescendo whilst a chorus cries "Hail Cornwall. Hail Cornwall".
Watching the concert performance you are more aware of the music and with the singers centre stage, almost amongst the instruments, at times their singing risks being overwhelmed by the music. Isolde, soprano Nina Stemme, was clearly struggling with a bit of a cold (I haven't seen an opera singer need to take Sinex and pills mid-performance before), but she managed to sing out as clear as a bell over the orchestra. Of the four main singers in Act 1 she was the one who continued to act her piece to get the turmoil of the story told with her voice and expression, not just singing it out. The gentle music builds to a "what happens next?" finale and I had to buy a ticket for Acts 2 and 3 when I got home as it was a great night out. I've read that this is a trick of the music that Wagner writes, building anticipation. It's called "harmonic suspension" apparently, but without knowing that was happening, the orchestra tonight were able to convey it. The Rachmaninov for me was especially good and something that I'd never heard before. A great wee bonus to the main event.
City Halls, Glasgow
I like the City Halls too, I think it's a great concert venue, with good acoustics and sightlines throughout. It also makes me remember the various trade union demonstrations that used to end here, where I'd get to run about and play on the balcony whilst the speeches went on. It's all much smarter nowadays.

I'm reading Haruki Murakami's big 1,000 page tome at the moment, 1Q84, and co-incidentally got to the end of Book 1 out of 3 last night, before seeing Act 1 of Wagner's 3. At the start of book 2 a character quotes from Chekov his famous line about not introducing a gun to Act 1 unless you are going to use it in Act 3, so I fear for the future of Tristan and Isolde and don't fancy their chances of making it to the end of Act 3 now that they've already talked of life threatening wounds and deadly potions. For that matter in the book I don't much fancy Aomame or Tengo's chances of making it to page 1,000. However, in both cases, all will be revealed and in both cases I'm looking forward to finding out.


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