IF YOU’RE someone who finds the excesses of Wagner’s operas too much to take in one go, then the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has a simple and exciting answer. In a move that will delight fans of the “bleeding chunks” approach to Wagner, the orchestra is serialising his seminal opera Tristan und Isolde in such a way that its three acts will feature successively in each of the three concerts that make up its 2012-13 Usher Hall season in Edinburgh.
News of the project – which will also form part of the SSO’s regular Glasgow season – broke this week in advance of the orchestra’s full Scottish season announcement, due later this month. Clearly, they see it as a story that has legs of its own, and one they don’t wish to get watered down in the general morass of 21 and 22 March, when, in an unprecedented move, all three Scottish orchestras will announce their full seasons within 24 hours of one another.
The Tristan project is a cunning and inspired move by an orchestra that has been striving hard in recent years to break into the capital’s music scene, with embryonic Sunday night concert seasons under the baton of Edinburgh-born chief conductor Donald Runnicles.
In a slight change to format, the Edinburgh concerts will start at 4pm on each of the Sundays. Concertgoers can also take advantage of a new deal enabling them to purchase the three concerts for the price of two.
“This is our third year of presenting concerts in the Usher Hall, and what we’re seeing is a loyal following that is generally growing,” says SSO director Gavin Reid, himself a pure-bred Edinburgh boy with a genuine desire to make things work for the SSO in his native city.
But the choice of Wagner as a leitmotif for the coming season is as much to do with the iconic German composer’s bicentenary in 2013, as it is to do with recognising Runnicle’s reputation as a leading interpreter of the operas (as in last season’s opening performance of the first act of Die Walküre), not to mention his pulling power in attracting the very best international singers for the job. Among the global stars handpicked for Tristan und Isolde are the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, who has recorded the role of Isolde with Plácido Domingo; English tenor Ian Storey, whose operatic career was rocket-propelled by a performance as Tristan at La Scala Milan; Robert Dean Smith, who takes over from Peter Rose as Tristan for the colossal Third Act performance; and other inspired casting that includes Matthew Best (an heroic Wotan in Scottish Opera’s most recent Ring cycle) and Scots tenor Nicky Spence.
Runnicles – until recently music director of San Francisco Opera, and now in charge of Berlin’s Deutsche Oper – not only counts them as “treasured colleagues and good friends”, but admires them as “remarkable artists who perform on the stages of Bayreuth, Vienna, Paris, New York and London”. Or, quite simply, all the places where Wagner matters.
But why Tristan? It’s a question that will become even more pertinent when another Scottish concert performance of the same opera is revealed among the major arts programme announcements, due in the coming weeks but which can’t be disclosed at the moment.
So far as Runnicles is concerned, it was an opera that changed the course of music. “It took music in a direction in 1865 thus far only hinted at,” he says. “All of a sudden here was an explosive work that married music, drama and orchestral colour to create an incredible, visceral sonic universe of love and longing. Its influence on the giants of the symphony and symphonic poem – Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner and Schoenberg to name but a few – was colossal.”
He also believes that the purely symphonic experience of Wagner in the concert hall can be revelatory, especially where – as in this project – each act is presented in relation to a work by a composer who either influenced, or was influenced by, Wagner: “For this series I’ve paired each act with a work that has strong and profound connection with Wagner.”
The opening Edinburgh concert on 30 September (27 September in Glasgow) will combine Act 1 of Tristan with the tolling solemnity of Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead.
In November, Act 2 is presented with excerpts from Berlioz’s dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette – two fateful love stories in glorious juxtaposition.
Act 3 follows in April 2013 with Richard Strauss’s undeniably Tristanesque Metamorphosen for strings.
Then there are the pre-concert talks. For these the SSO has enlisted the informed and creative minds of author AL Kennedy, broadcaster and self-confessed Wagnerian James Naughtie, and opera critic Tom Sutcliffe to shed light on various aspects of the Tristan phenomenon.
Runnicles says: “Exploring the opera in this way will give the players and audience the chance to focus on this revolution in music and to understand more why this work proved to be so pivotal in much of the great symphonic music that followed.”
The SSO’s ongoing commitment to building a sustained Edinburgh presence could hardly be more explicitly expressed, nor could its serious intent to build an audience that will support that presence. Gavin Reid is under no illusion, however, that it will be anything other than a long-term ambition.
“My view is that it will take a lot longer than one or two seasons,” he says. “But we are very much in the business of building a season that will engage the local Edinburgh community, with programming that is interesting, distinctive and of the highest possible quality.
“It will take a good number of years, and we recognise what the RSNO has achieved over decades, and what the SCO has also done to establish audience loyalty over the past 30 years. But the commitment is there.”
Similar, in fact, to the symbolic Tristan chord that remains tantalisingly unresolved throughout Wagner’s tragic tale of annihilating passion, right up to the final ecstatic “Liebestod” in Act 3, a breakthrough moment that is well worth the long and persistent wait.
• Tickets for the BBC SSO’s 2012-13 Usher Hall series of Tristan concerts are now on sale, tel 0131-228 1155. Tickets for the Glasgow concerts go on sale when the full SSO season is announced on 22 March. Information on www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso