Festival review: Tristan und Isolde; Usher Hall

According to George Bernard Shaw, “to enjoy Tristan und Isolde it is only necessary to have had one serious love affair”.

Even on this broad a basis, the process of imaginative identification with Wagner’s Celtic-derived mythic romance requires rather more work when it’s a concert performance, as with this Welsh National Opera version, derived from their recent revival of Yannis Kokkos’s acclaimed 1993 production, but it still wasn’t hard to be swept along by the music’s frequent flood-tides of extravagantly tumultuous intensity.

There were plenty such emotional torrents raging under the baton of WNO’s music director Lothar Koenigs, although rather fewer of them than might be expected were unleashed by the principal singers.

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Ben Heppner as Tristan, in particular, proved a distinct disappointment, given the renown he’s earned for the role. During most of his climactic moments, both the rapturous exchanges with Isolde in Act II and in his long Act III death sequence, he was all but inaudible over the full orchestra, and while greater lyrical subtleties gradually emerged in the more sparsely accompanied passages, these key shortcomings remained somewhat glaring.

Jennifer Wilson’s Isolde was much stronger, imbued with impressive complexity if sometimes harshly shrill, but she was somewhat upstaged by a bewitching performance from mezzo Susan Bickley as her maid, Brangane. The other real stars were Koenigs and the orchestra, delivering a sumptuous but cleanly defined sound and richly optimising the score’s myriad grand dynamic contrasts.

Rating: * * *