Tristan und Isolde /Andris Nelsons/ CBSO/Gould ,Braun in Birmingham

From the poignant woodwind of the initial falling chromatic phrase , the hushed strings , pianissimo to passionate climaxes, of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, we know we are in the sure hands of an an inspired Wagner conductor. Andris Nelsons conducting his orchestra the CBSO is, in this music, the equal of any. And I’ve experienced Wagner’s Ring cycle twice at Vienna State Opera, in June 2009 under Franz Welser-Möst, and November 2011, a one-off, conducted by Christian Thielemann.(Both exceptional.)
Nelsons for once has a chair to lean back on. Usually a Nietschian super human figure, long haired giant cajoling and mesmerising his orchestra to their limits, he’s moderated his body language, in for the long haul.
The cast is, at first, a little baffling. As Isolde , Lioba Braun cuts a slight figure. Should she be younger, rather than brunette? Perhaps tall, blonde , and lithe , like Christianne Stotijn cast as her maid Brangane. Mezzo Stotijn ,a distiguished lieder singer, is strong in that role .But Braun as Isolde defies any earlier misgivings with her exquisite powerful soprano. She is fearsome, fully occupying the role, dramatically expressive, as if enacting Isolde on stage. Of course, this is a concert performance, and the cast in modern dress is not to be expected to use that limited space in front of orchestra.
Nevertheless , her counterpart Tristan , Stephen Gould, in the first Act, stands lumpen, immovable, making no bodily gestures. We cannot criticise the power of the rendition musically, Gould’s tremendous, full-bodied helden tenor. But, initially, Gould as Tristan, somewhat confounds our expectations of the young romantic knight. (Stolid and true , he’s assigned to deliver the King’s bride-to-be, even though he’s hopelessly in love with her.) How can he be played by a middle-aged man , with greying hair and beard, in a smart business suit?
But I’m wrong! Gould is well experienced in this role. Gould’s wonderful tenor melts, ether-like, after imbibing the love potion. And this is a love which is metaphysical, not quite consummated- it is a love affair of mind and soul. Gould’s Tristan- transformed, bewitched- will open up.
So in Act 3’s opening, the wounded Tristan, preceded by distant cor anglais, expresses yearning, longing for the arrival of Isolde. Now Gould is enervated , impassioned, almost crooning, his hands wide apart. ‘Must it burn forever?’ Now ‘enlightened’, summoned from the night, Gould is tremendous.
Wagner is using harmonic suspension over the entire work. So cadences introduced in the Prelude are not resolved until the finale of Act 3. (A musical climax is anticipated with a series of chords building in tension- their resolution deliberately deferred.) Hence at the close of the love duet in Act 2 , where Tristan and Isolde’s gradually building musical climax is disrupted by the dissonant arrival of Kurwenal. The long anticipated completion of this cadence is only achieved in the final Liebestod, when the musical resolution is at the moment of Isolde’s death.
Braun appears in Act 2 in a ravishing pink silk gown and shawl , Stotijn, in blue velvet, dowdy by contrast. Isolde calls on the night, quivering in erotic anticipation. (‘Put out the light now ..let him in’). Bragane had switched poison for love potion; the result, now love is a living death.
Together at last, eternal, unimaginable ‘mine and yours forever one’.Their love is called Tristan and Isolde; then they should die undivided , enfolded in love, eternally together.
Nelsons, seated on a high stool, positioned between Braun and Gould, has pride of place. All in black a magician like figure conjuring and charming his orchestra, Nelsons is a commanding god-like figure, overlooking orchestra augmented by CBSO choir for Acts 1 and 2 sailors’ choruses.
Act 3 is enthralling, the tension sustained even into the fifth hour. (The hour-long first interval was needed for Lioba Braun’s costume changes, joked audience.) Only Isolde’s arrival can save fatally wounded Tristan. Gould’s Tristan railing against his desires and the fateful love potion -longing and death, but not death from longing- is thrilling stuff. Also the marvelous scene when Tristan alternates between praise and reproach for his friend and servant Kurwenal (baritone Brett Polegato in exceptionally fine voice.)
Braun in full-length shimmering blue lace over white tafetta, like a sea goddess, arrives at Tristan’s side. She’s come to die with him. Too late; the hard hearted man has punished her. Braun is especially poignant in Isolde’s last aria . She appears to wake , imagines a vision of Tristan resurrected, ‘Mild und leise, wie er lachelt…’.Isolde evokes the Liebestod (love in death), the clouds of blissful fragrance, the surging breath of the universe: to drown and sink unconscious , the highest bliss. Magnificent, as Isolde radiates with ecstasy.
The cast , which Nelsons seems to have cherry-picked, is uniformly good. Bass Brett Polegato as Kurwenal is on terrific form. Matthew Best as King Marke , is a slight figure (blonde, crewecut), but with a superb deep timbre, commandingly powerful. He’s impressive in (end Act 2) discovering Tristan and Isolde embracing – heartbroken at the betrayal of his nephew and friend, Melot’s (Benedikt Nelson) of Tristan, as well as Isolde’s (Mir- dies? Dies, Tristan -mir?’)
This is a tremendous performance that should have been recorded. The only consolation is for those lucky enough with tickets for a repeat performance at Theatre du Champs-Elysees in Paris (March 11). Nelsons on a mini tour with the CBSO play the Musikverein in Vienna 19, 20 March.
3.3.2012