“Tristan and Isolde” at the Salle Pleyel

Parigi, Salle Pleyel, Stagione concertistica 2012/2013
Azione in tre atti, libretto e musica di Richard Wagner
Un giovane marinario PASCAL BOURGEOIS*
* Solisti del Coro di Radio France
Coro Maschile di Radio France
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Direttore Mikko Franck
Maestro del Coro Matthias Brauer
(esecuzione in forma di concerto)
Parigi, 13 ottobre 2012

For this concert version of Tristan and Isolde, conductor Mikko Franck had only four days to prepare. Replacing charismatic Myung-Whun Chung, the musical director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, whose son had suffered a serious accident the week before, was quite a challenge, especially since the concert was being broadcast live on France Musique.  32-year-old Mikko Franck, in his first performance of the work, had an outstanding success. The work had exceptional drive and urgency.
Mikko Franck went straight to the heart of the music with clear indications and a simplicity that avoided exaggerated effect. As the Prelude rose continually in intensity up to its one crowning climax, Mikko Franck and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France were working hand in hand. Easy to see why this conductor is fast becoming a major figure on the international scene.
Nina Stemme gave a masterly performance, confirming herself yet again as one of the truly great Wagnerian interpreters of today. In this last season in Paris alone, she has triumphed as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser at the Opera Bastille, as Brünnhilde in a concert version of Die Walküre at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, and now in the Salle Pleyel as Isolde. Her effortless projection enabled her to prepare with intelligence the sinuous mounting phrases of this opera. Stemme can sing from anywhere, in every acoustic. Her voice was never lost, even in her lowest register she sang with secure even tone without ever using chest voice. Her Liebestod was rhapsodic and master-planned.
A concert version of Tristan and Isolde on an open stage like the Salle Pleyel does however present acoustic problems. For some of the cast, this harmonic blend of voices with the ravishing orchestral texture was harder to achieve. Though Stemme was never handicapped by this, it is a fact that she had absolutely no eye contact with Mikko Franck until she kissed him at the end of the performance. On an opera stage, phrasing (and more especially rubato) can be calculated with far greater precision when the conductor’s baton is in full view.
In her long opening scene with Isolde, Sarah Connolly (Brangäne) seemed uncomfortable in front of the orchestra. Amid the quantity of opening narration without any dramaturgy, her voice sounded exposed, almost isolated. When however, in Act II, her magnificent lines towards the end of the duo between Tristan and Isolde, normally sung off-stage, were sung from the left of the choir stalls, her voice carried beautifully over the orchestra and sounded truly homogeneous.
Tenor Christian Franz (Tristan) had the most difficulty. His use of Sprechgesang for the role was interesting. But in this acoustic, he appeared to not have a big voice at all and his lines lacked homogeneity with the orchestral texture. In Act III, he gave his most effective singing with a fine characterization of Tristan’s delirium. But at other times, generally in forte passages, he was sometimes shouting for all he was worth, even turning his back on the audience occasionally, perhaps in hope of more harmonic cohesion with the orchestra.
Bass Peter Rose, with a coolness of style and phrasing, penetrating timbre and noble pace, was perfectly cast as King Marke. He also profited from continual eye contact with the conductor.
Tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele (Melot) also used the space intelligently, with clear diction and bold delivery.
Baritone Detlef Roth (Kurwenal) gave an exceptional performance thanks to two qualities he has in abundance, rhythmic swing and an incredible feel for legato. Perhaps the finest example of this was when, in the middle of the contagious nervous energy of the third Act, he sang the reflective commentary in the middle (Mein Herre Tristan! Schrecklicher Zauber!) with a legato that was simply heart-wrenching.
The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France shows itself yet again as a major French orchestra. Winds and brass in particular have spectacular qualities. The bass clarinet was remarkable, and more especially, the cor anglais playing solo from the first balcony in the third Act.
The male choir of Radio France gave a fine performance, including three solos from members of the choir, tenors Pascal Bourgeois, Christophe Poncet and baritone Renaud Derrien.