A performance of Wagner’s epic Tristan und Isolde, a testimony for all-enduring love, is a welcome event anywhere in the world. Even more so in Sydney, where this cathartic music drama was produced for only the fourth time since the Opera House opened in 1973. (It is somewhat ironic that all performances took place in the Concert Hall with the contribution of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, leaving the patrons of the iconic building’s Opera Theatre with its own resident orchestra longing for their own production.)

Christine Brewer © Christian Steiner
Christine Brewer
© Christian Steiner

The two performances of the last few days were prepared with a lot of care and attention to detail and the musical experience could have been nothing short of stunning – had a few odd artistic decisions not impaired its overall effect.

By installing a huge screen behind the orchestra and the singers, onto which S Katy Tucker designed video projections, a fantastic opportunity opened up to provide a third layer of interpretation with the text (so important in Wagner’s music dramas) and the music. The concept of assisting a plot with internal psychological developments but little action has been proven to have enormous potential, for example in the Tristan production of the Opéra de Paris almost a decade ago. I found the Sydney projections, based on predictable and recurring symbols like fire, water, a sword or a large eye, plus a young couple eternally gazing at each other, disappointingly shallow and not helpful to the audience; in fact distracting from the music and the musicians. Its repetitiveness culminated in Act III with a white seagull crossing the screen back and forth endlessly in the video loop.

The orchestra, always a protagonist in Wagner’s operas, was outstanding, led firmly and energetically by David Robertson. There were lovely wind solos and a constantly focused string sound, gentle and velvety or perhaps fervent and shattering, depending on the events in the drama. The tempos dictated by the conductor at times felt slightly breathless (as in the renowned opening bars of the opera, when the rhythm almost got distorted), but Robertson kept the massive ensemble of large orchestra, soloists, chorus and off-stage instrumentalists, as well as the magnificent arch of over five hours run time eminently in control. He directed the flow of the music with confidence while allowing his orchestra to play freely. Amongst other orchestral sections, the Prelude of Act II felt particularly inspired.

A significant problem arose here though, as the singers were seated on a platform behind the orchestra and were thus forced to devote a considerable proportion of their artistic might to be heard as clearly as possible. This proved not much of a problem in the softer sections and poignant musical moments showed the true potential of this performance (memorably the middle section of the love duet in the Act II, “O sink’ hernieder”). However, most of the exalted and triumphant beginning of the same duet suffered from a severe balance problem. It was not due to any deficiency of the protagonists and it was certainly not the fault of the orchestra. As a result of the disadvantaged position of the singers, in the loud sections first Wagner’s poetically inspired libretto was in danger of being lost, then at times, it became problematic to ascertain which language they were singing and sadly, I found it often difficult to hear them at all over the orchestra’s swelling sound.

For these reasons it would be unfair to comment extensively on the singers. Easiest to hear and appreciate were the voices of the Steersman (Harrison Collins) and the Shepherd (John Tessier), opening Act I and III respectively, giving a beautiful rendition of their minor roles – but then, they were singing without any orchestral accompaniment. John Relyea was heart-wrenching, yet regally dignified in the role of King Marke. (Wagner had first-hand experience of knowing betrayed husbands whose best friend took off with their wife. After all, it was he who seduced Cosima Liszt, the wife of Hans von Bülow, his admiring friend and the conductor of the 1865 premier of Tristan und Isolde not long before the first performance.) Relyea was fortunate in as much as he had a tenderly soft orchestra supporting him during his emotive monologue in Act II. The loyal servants, Kurwenal (Boaz Daniel) and Brangäne (Katarina Karnéus) were not offered the same luxury by the composer and, though singing valiantly with finesse, some of their vocal qualities remained undiscovered.

In the role of Tristan, Lance Ryan’s beautiful Heldentenor voice often sounded strained and this also affected his intonation on occasion.  Some of his fortissimo notes were sung with an overly wide vibrato whereas at other times, he elected to free his voice from vibrato altogether. Christine Brewer, with a wealth of experience singing Isolde, seemed to struggle with the punishingly high notes in Act I but relaxed more as the evening went on. Her voice blossomed admirably and “Mild und leise”, the heavenly Liebestod, brought the opera to a sublime finish.