by Rachel Beaumont

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Manna from heaven: Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne

Tristan und Isolde
Glyndebourne Festival
Stalls C30, £115
21 August 2021
Glyndebourne page

If Grimeborn’s chamber arrangement of Die Walküre was like finding Fanta in the desert, Glyndebourne’s Tristan und Isolde is like stumbling upon a rehydration clinic where kindly experts lead you through a carefully designed programme of liquid delights. Glyndebourne’s intimate acoustic, the placement of the orchestra on stage, the glory of Robin Ticciati’s work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and some sound singing: the stars aligned to make this a transcendental performance. From each act we emerged speechless, and I reel still from a physical reminder of the impact magnificent live performance can have on mind and body.

Since Glyndebourne’s Pelléas et Mélisande I’ve had expectations of greatness from Ticciati in this acoustic with this orchestra. The intensity and intention of Tristan’s Prelude produced such an exquisite sensation in me that I do not have the words to describe it. In retrospect it makes me think of the first performance of this astonishing piece, of how it must have felt to be hearing that music for the first time. Only in retrospect, though; in situ there was space for nothing else but the music itself. This rapturous spell was cast over the rest of Act I.

Acts II and III were glorious but not to the same awe-inspiring degree. I feel churlish to say it but I think the responsibility for that largely lies with Miina-Liisa Värelä as Isolde. She has a beautiful voice, with exactly the right timbre for Isolde; but she is a young singer, and as Simon O’Neill’s Tristan warmed up she overstretched and eventually petered out before the Liebestod. I hasten to add that it was still very good, and I look forward to the day when she can sing the whole opera in the way she sang Act I.

The rest of the cast are, like O’Neill, reliable pros. Karen Cargill as Brangäne and Shenyang as Kurwenal are almost ridiculously loud – in fact, I would go so far as to say Shenyang is ridiculously loud, with a magnificent voice that perhaps should be reigned in a little more in a part the size of Kurwenal. A treat, nevertheless, for his audience. Brindley Sherratt stood in for an indisposed John Relyea as King Marke and while I was a little sad not to hear how Relyea, whom I last saw in Nabucco many years ago, is getting on, I could not but rejoice to have the known quantity of Sherratt’s beautiful resonance and confident stage presence.

I’ve seen O’Neill disappoint a few times but a semi-staged production in this generous acoustic suits him down to the ground. He was free to concentrate on his sound and that he did with aplomb, completely nailing Act III to a professionally heroic tee. The whole production, in fact, makes a case for the semi-staged approach, at least as deployed here: orchestra to the back of the stage, a corridor of acting space at the front, the singers off book and a few handy props as stipulated in the text. The singers can focus on singing and we can all revel in the sound of the orchestra. It’s not what Wagner intended, of course – but here, now, it is like manna from heaven.

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