Tristan and Isolde review - The Australian

Melbourne Opera’s intrepid bid to scale Wagnerian heights

Jostling with the two professional opera companies serving Victoria, Melbourne Opera aspires to ­tackle the grandest, most difficult works in the operatic canon ­despite receiving no government funding, lacking a permanent professional chorus and orchestra, and, in its quest to employ local artists, competing with the lure of top-tier domestic and international companies.

Having pursued standard Italian repertoire in its first decade, the company caught the Wagner bug in 2013, mounting a concert performance of Rienzi to coincide with Opera Australia’s first Ring Cycle. Since then, vaulting ambition has propelled the company through fully staged productions of Tannhauser and Lohengrin, at the punishing rate of one Wagner opera a year.

This year’s outing, Tristan and Isolde, sits another rung up the aspirational ladder. With the original Arthurian narrative pared back by Wagner to near absurdity and the composer’s intensely Germanic transfusion of toil, irreconcilable angst and transcendence through suffering tortuously woven into a symbolist libretto and a purposively vague, inexorable score, it is an intensely difficult work to direct, stage and perform.

Not surprisingly, the standout artistic contribution comes from Wagner veteran and Welsh National Opera stalwart Anthony Negus. Calmly guiding his impromptu orchestra and cast of role debutants, Negus offers exquisitely paced, richly contoured and generously variegated logic, along with meticulous cues for his relatively inexperienced young charges. A fine rendition — not­withstanding momentary orches­tral muddles, second act balance issues and randomly scattered horn and brass bloopers.

Although featuring the creatives that brought lucidity and dynamism to last year’s Lohengrin, this Tristan lacks zing. Absent a driving narrative, director Suzanne Chaundy’s blocking gravitates around static tableaus while awkward lover exchanges are devoid of sexual energy.

Lucy Wilkins’s drab costumes for the men and Greg Carroll’s dismally grey set elements (a stylised hull, with two precarious stairwells, optimistically called to serve as ship, cave and castle) do little to increase the temperature.

Yandell Walton’s projections of waves, glistening rocks and abstract solar blooms substitute for, rather than supplement, onstage drama.

Stretching her Fach into darker realms, Lee Abrahmsen drills powerfully through Isolde’s upper register passages and exudes constant majesty.

Still finding the heroic carriage required of a Tristan, British artist Neal Cooper demonstrates the emerging vocal traits of a quality heldentenor while a booming Steven Gallop best taps the work’s plentiful vein of pathos, casting King Marke as a level-headed, ­everyman philosopher, rational yet pained.

Animated performances by Sarah Sweeting as hapless meddling maid Brangane and Michael Lampard as eternally loyal servant Kurwenal add a much-needed dramatic thrust to the company’s first, intrepid attempt at scaling these perilous Wagnerian shards of death, desire and suffering.

Reviewer: Eamonn Kelly
Melbourne Opera's intrepid bid to scale Wagnerian heights

 

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