The West Australian Symphony Orchestra intoned the famed final B major chord of Tristan und Isolde while Gun-Brit Barkmin stood with arms outstretched in rapture singing “Waves of beautiful fragrance, how they billow and sweep me away”. The harmonic and erotic tension Wagner had spun for nearly four hours finally resolved with the richness of a pipe organ and the notes lingered ethereally in the Perth Concert Hall as Isolde died alongside her beloved Tristan.
It was one of the most sublime moments of music I have experienced. The audience responded with an instantaneous standing ovation.
It was a hard-earned conclusion, both for orchestra and audience. On Thursday night the singers seemed visibly relieved as each monumental act concluded, especially Barkmin who stepped into one of opera’s most taxing roles with two weeks notice when Eva-Maria Westbroek withdrew due to illness. Bass clarinettist Phillip Everall was even more last minute, replacing the injured Alex Millier with 24 hours notice and managing a magnificent extended duet with King Marke in Act Two. There were occasional untidy entries in the orchestra over the evening but they were minor lapses in a monster undertaking.
The opera poses a challenge to the audience also; an intensely heightened focus is required for Wagner’s psychological examination of love, betrayal and death. The opera depicts the anguish of the unattainable as Isolde seeks first to kill Tristan then – following their accidental drinking of a love potion – to commit adultery and ultimately a love suicide with him. Wagner expresses this noumenal yearning in the famously dissonant opening Tristan chord which is heard countless times throughout the opera, aided by his elusive poetry (Wagner wrote his own libretto) and elongated, fluid phrases and rhythms.
The opera’s intensity provokes strong reactions. German conductor Bruno Walter said on hearing Tristan und Isolde: “Never before has my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion, never had my heart been consumed by such yearning and sublime bliss,” while Eduark Hanslich’s reaction was that it “reminds one of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel.”
There was a moment in the forty minute love duet that dominated Act Two where my ears were numbed by the waves of reverberating orchestral sound. Around the time Barkmin was singing about ‘measureless realms of ecstatic dreams’ the sensory overload became odious.
The German soprano, enmeshed in that swamping orchestral sound, firmly held her ground. Barkmin sang with silvery power, channelling a raging Brünnhilde in Act One then transforming into a blissfully shimmering lover. Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton was her equal in every way as Tristan, surfing the orchestral waves with voluptuous power and then sculpting his enormous voice into honeyed droplets.
The outstanding multi-national cast included the velveteen mezzo of Russian Ekaterina Gubanova who was richly expressive as Isolde’s devoted maid Brangäne. Israeli baritone Boaz Daniel was earnest and robust as Tristan’s loyal servant Kurwenal and Estonian bass Ain Anger was supremely regal as King Marke. Australian singers Angus Wood, Paul O’Neill and Andrew Foote amply filled the supporting roles. The WASO Chorus, amplified by the St George’s Cathedral Consort provided a vigorous male chorus.
Concert performances of operas can be unsatisfying but in Tristan the orchestral dialogue is integral and the details of plot less so. Nothing seemed lacking thanks to the theatricality of the singers – most singing from memory and moving about freely at the front of the state. Instead the audience was able to experience the rich drama of the music uncluttered by set and costumes.
Conductor Asher Fisch and orchestra heightened the metaphysical passion of the opera and brought vividness to its subversive ideas. The prelude was unhurried and spaced with pregnant pauses. In each act that followed the orchestra set the scene more effectively than any set design, from the surging ocean waves of the first act to the foreboding dark string opening to the final act. The more intimate moments were equally compelling particularly the heart-melting cor anglais, offstage clarion trumpet calls (played on a replica wooden ‘Tristan trumpet’) and the aforementioned bass clarinet.
Fisch has been building to this throughout his tenure as principal conductor of the orchestra, drawing on his background in German romantic opera repertoire and shaping a distinct European sound from the orchestra via a Beethoven festival, a Brahms series, a Wagner expose and ultimately an opera. Was it the pinnacle of his tenure? Hard to say. I’m still reeling from the weight of the concert and struggling to separate the elements that went into creating it. Wagner would be pleased as his vision for a synthesised gesamtkunstwerk was achieved in all its totality. WASO should also be pleased as their salubrious 90th birthday celebration has left a profound impact on all who participated. A once in a lifetime experience.