There’s an understandable reason why this production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is the first one to be performed in Ireland since 1912. With an approximate running time of four hours, an extensively dramatic plot line, and it’s notoriously difficult and demanding vocal roles, it was be a totally acceptable decision for any opera company to choose something slighty less daunting in its place. So the new Irish Opera company Wide Open Opera I feel deserves credit for even attempting this gargantuan work. Directed by Yannis Kokkos, and originating from a production be Welsh national Opera, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store!
Conductor Fergus Sheil, along with our very own and very wonderful RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, opens Act I with a wonderfully atmospheric prelude, as the curtain rises to reveal what is a minimalist, grey and unprovoking set. As the plot begins to move, our lead vocalists make themselves known. Isolde is sung by the Kerry born Miriam Murphy. With a CV including the likes of ROH Covent Garden and Glyndebourne on Tour, her’s is not a name to be snubbed. She is joined by Tristan, sung by Lars Cleveman whom also has an impressive back catalogue, having appeared in Wagner’s home of Bayreuth to sing the title role of Tannhauser. The opening act is credible, if a little static in its staging with very little dramatic action or general movement. Making an appearance are a very strong chorus, who appear musically only far too briefly in this opera. Ms. Murphy proves her worth vocally as Isolde, as does Laois woman Imelda Drumm in the role of Brangane, providing some of the most believable acting of the evening.
As we delve into Act II, the demands are even greater for our power couple Tristan and Isolde, and as the stakes are raised, cracks begin to appear. During what is intended to be a blistering love scene, it is brought to light that the pair portraying these two lustful lovers share absolutely no sexual chemistry, and become intensely awkward in moments. This was not helped in the slightest by the apparent refusal of director Kokkos to allow the singers to move in any dramatic fashion, allowing any sense of love, lust or passion between the pair to disappear entirely, and where is Tristan und Isolde without passion, lust and love? Thankfully, the arrival of the wonderful Manfred Hemm as Kind Mark and Eugene Ginty as Melot provided a most needed saving grace to this scene. Powerful and passionate, the pair salvaged what was left of Act II, proving themselves most worthy of these difficult vocal roles.
Act III, which includes the finale, brought to light a hidden star in the form of Mr. Brett Polegato as Tristan’s faithful servant Kurwenal. Drawing you in entirely, he managed to transform the start of the third act into what it’s truly supposed be be- a dramatic, passionate love story. However, beside this power house of a man, the voice of Cleveman is utterly lost, as he struggles to compete with the very strong orchestra. As we near the end of this scene, drama escalates with much help from Polegato (Kurwenal) and Ginty (Melot) into an encapsulating fight scene, and the eventual death of Tristan. The death which sends Isolde into despair, unconvincingly portrayed by Ms. Murphy until the very last moment, when she suddenly bursts forth with the passion she required all along to sing of her lover’s death, and prediction of her own, ending the evening on a high.
This production of Tristan und Isolde , although lacking in aspects, heralds a new era of Opera in Ireland. When such a production can flourish, as it did with seats selling well, in place of the typical ‘Opera’s Famous Moments’ concerts, it at least gives us hope that the art might stay alive. We certainly have here a step forward for Ireland’s opera scene, and some fresh new faces of opera production that certainly require watching in the future.