Tristan and Isolde review - The Age

This was not the opening night Melbourne Opera had planned. But then, Wagner didn't have the premiere he planned for Tristan und Isolde either. After trying for six years to have it staged, when a date was finally set in 1865, opening night had to be postponed for nearly a month because the Isolde lost her voice. Melbourne Opera's leading lady too fell ill at the final hour on Friday but thankfully we only had to wait three days, not three weeks, to hear this revolutionary work.


Tristan is widely regarded as Wagner's greatest triumph. And while it didn't defeat them, this masterwork certainly tested this little opera company that could. Based on a medieval myth, Tristan and Isolde are lovers from warring countries who share a fervent but forbidden love, and are fated to be ultimately consumed by it.


Ambition in staging this four-hour epic was validated in the performance of Lee Abrahmsen. In one of the toughest roles in the repertory, even more remarkable as she was recovering from a virus, Abrahmsen was a revelation. Isolde's Act I alone is longer than the entire role of Aida, but it appeared no obstacle, Abrahmsen's strong soprano soaring and brimming with colour. English Heldentenor Neal Cooper was steely-toned and managed the music well, but he and Abrahmsen lacked chemistry. Their Act II duet felt awkward and forced.


The star of this show is undoubtedly the orchestra. This opera risks becoming a beautiful mess of crushing sound, but conductor Anthony Negus didn't let his players overindulge. The Liebestod was the highlight of a marathon performance.


The show's length did make the audience grow weary and it thinned considerably by Act III. Perhaps it's not the show to start with if you've never seen an opera before, but Wagnerians and lovers of truly grandiose music will leave feeling fulfilled.


Reviewer: Bridget Davies