Given the spate of visually distracting, if not irksome productions which seem to blight the opera world these days, there is something to be said for concert performances. Obviously the whole point of Gesamtkunstwerk is negated by the absence of  staging, acting, lighting and costumes but at least one can concentrate on the music without directional debacles or mindless mis-en-scènes. Good sound is of course paramount, and unlike the new concert halls in Katowice and Wrocław, the venerable Philharmonia Hall in Warsaw has many acoustic imperfections, the worst being dryness.

Jacek Kaspszyk © Juliusz Multarzyński
Jacek Kaspszyk
© Juliusz Multarzyński

This was obvious from the opening bars of the Einleitung, lovingly conducted by the Warsaw Phiharmonic’s Artistic Director Jacek Kaspszyk. His measured langsam und schmachtend pacing revealed a raspiness in the winds and only the bass clarinet had real resonance which foreshadowed some sensitive playing during King Marke’s soliloquy. The strings on the other hand were more mellifluous and the cellos’ articulation of the blickmotiv suitably seductive.

Vocally things started well with the young sailor’s a cappella narration admirably sung by Tomasz Warmijak. Later the 40-strong male chorus sang brilliantly with exceptional energy and pristine diction. Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne was not particularly memorable at the outset but improved significantly in Act II with some fine sustained notes on “Habet acht”. As a youthful Marke, Christian Hübner sang with conviction and a powerful low register reminiscent of Matti Salminen. The resonant low B natural on “Mir dies” was a perfect example. Slightly smoother phrasing in “warum so sehrend Unseliger?” would have improved the overall performance but it was still more than satisfactory.

Wiener Staatsoper regular Tomasz Konieczny (which appropriately means ‘necessary’ in Polish) was a committed and sonorous Kurwenal with an absolutely electric top register. From a snide “Das sage sie” to a salubrious “selig sollst gesunden”, Konieczny was not only vocally outstanding but also dramatically compelling. His powerful baritone effortlessly cut through the huge orchestral forces and the sustained top F naturals had real clarion quality.

Sweden has produced a number of celebrated Isolde’s from Catarina Ligenza and Nina Stemme to the incomparable Birgit Nilsson but few heldentenors. Michael Weinius breaks the mould. This is a very forward placed, bright, clear voice closer to the more lyrical René Kollo than the meatier Jon Vickers. Weinius’ articulation and diction were outstanding throughout and the long scena with Kurwenal opening Act III  was the musical highpoint of the performance. The voice is impressively even in all registers with an indiscernible gear change. The numerous top B flats and high A naturals were perfectly pitched with easy élan and the mezzavoce legato sections such as “Dünkt dich das” beautifully phrased. Weinius seemed as fresh at the last gasped “Isolde” as the first irritable “Was ist?” He is vocally a true ‘Helden ohne Gleiche’ and only his acting ability remains to be determined.

In many ways American soprano Jennifer Wilson is reminiscent of Rita Hunter. A tendency to raise her head before taking high notes is similar to Joan Sutherland but without La Stupenda’s flawless vocal technique. Wilson’s phrasing was erratic, the low register often inaudible and the mid-range timbre uneven. High notes were frequently edged upwards and overall diction was desultory. For a soprano with considerable steel in the vocal armoury, the manic “Zerschlag es dies trotzige Schiff” was lacking in fire although the later high B naturals on “gab er es preis” and “mir lacht” had ping despite limited dramatic conviction. Isolde really needs more than a few laser-like metallic top notes and Wilson was definitely the weakest link in an otherwise impressive cast.

Wagner litters the score of Tristan with countless tempi and dynamic  instructions (often exclamation marked) and the Warsaw Philharmonic paid commendable attention to these markings. Whilst not quite reaching the incandescence of Kleiber or the deep melancholy of Furtwängler, Kaspszyk’s reading of this infinitely fascinating score was closer to Karl Böhm’s briskness without being particularly idiosyncratic. There was some really exciting orchestral playing at the end of Act I; during “Ohne Nennen, ohne Trennen” and in the long Tristan/Kurwenal exchange in Act III. The preceding cor anglais introduction was sensitively played with just the right balance between melancholy and madness.

The only major negative about this performance is that for some reason it was given over two nights, with Act I sung separately. Whilst this may have provided a welcome respite for the singers, it had an adverse impact on the musical and dramatic whole. This concert version of Tristan und Isolde may have been a musical kunstwerk but it was hardly gesamt.

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