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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Cleveland Orchestra Offers A Transcendent Concert Tristan und Isolde

By Joseph So on April 24, 2018

The Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Möst, conductor (Photo: Roger Mastroianni)
The Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Möst, conductor (Photo: Roger Mastroianni)

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (In Concert).  Nina Stemme (Isolde); Gerhard Siegel (Tristan); Okka von der Damerau (Brangäne); Alan Held (Kurwenal); Ain Anger (King Marke). Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus; Franz Welser-Möst, conductor. Severance Hall, 6 p.m. April 21, 2018.

For devout Wagnerites within striking distance of Severance Hall in Cleveland, an important highlight this Spring is The Ecstasy of Tristan and Isolde, a “Festival Week” (April 21 – 29) focusing on the eternal love story of Tristan and Isolde, with the centerpiece being three concert performances of the monumental Wagner music drama. Any performance of this great work is an occasion, but when it involves the fabled Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst, starring the greatest Isolde of our time, Nina Stemme, it’s not to be missed.

Now in his sixteenth season with the Cleveland Orchestra, the Austrian maestro has continued the Orchestra’s longstanding tradition of presenting operas in concert.  This being the Orchestra’s centennial season, what better way to mark this important milestone than performing this great work?  If I may allow myself a bit of a personal digression – my first live experience of a Cleveland Orchestra opera concert was a galvanizing Richard Strauss Elektra some forty-five years ago, conducted by the late Lorin Maazel with the German soprano Ursula Schroeder-Feinen. I was instantly hooked!

Another unforgettable occasion was a concert Siegfried sixteen years ago, with Stig Andersen in the title role and Jane Eaglen as Brunnhilde, under the baton of Christoph von Dohnányi, in his swansong after eighteen seasons at the helm. Last evening, after the Orchestra sounded the last note, Welser-Möst kept his baton in the air for a good fifteen seconds, holding the admirably well-behaved audience in complete silence. When he finally lowered it and the hall erupted in tumultuous applause, I remember consciously thinking that I had just experienced a transcendent moment, forever etched in the memory bank.

To be sure, Tristan und Isolde is not a rare occurrence in the opera house — a quick check reveals that in 2018 alone, it’s being staged in seven major opera houses, including Paris, Bayreuth, Berlin (both Deutsche Oper and Staatsoper Unter den Linden), and Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. But given that we live in an era of Regieoper, one often encounters productions that, rather than serving the music, serves to detract from it. Thus it was rather refreshing to hear a concert performance without the visual distractions, allowing the listener to focus entirely on the music-making.

And what music-making it was last evening!  Welser-Möst has assembled a very strong cast, beginning with the definitive Isolde of Nina Stemme. Even in a purely concert performance, her fiery Irish princess was impressive for its dramatic intensity, indefatigable stamina, and her trademark vocalism, with its torrents of huge, penetrating sounds.  American baritone Alan Held, a famous Kurwenal whom Toronto audiences had the pleasure of experiencing, was as commanding and authoritative as ever. Estonian bass Ain Anger’s Hagen in Toronto was scarily imposing; here his King Marke was equally impressive.

German mezzo Okka von der Damerau was a vocally outstanding Brangäne. I have had the pleasure of hearing her on several occasions at the Munich Opera where she’s a Fest artist. Announced as the Annina in the Munich Opera concert Rosenkavalier at Carnegie last month, she withdrew due to an indisposition, so it’s good to see that she has recovered.  von der Damerau has a strong and easy upper extension, and I wouldn’t be surprised if dramatic soprano roles will be within her grasp in the future.

The main curiosity was German tenor Gerhard Siegel as Tristan. Though known primarily as a character singer on this side of the pond based on his Mime at the Met, Mr. Siegel has successfully sung Heldentenor roles the likes of Max, Bacchus, Florestan, Laca and Sergey in Nürnburg and elsewhere. His first foray into Tristan territory was in Augsburg.  Mr. Siegel has an attractive, bright, well focused, and evenly produced tenor, used with taste, sensitivity and musicality. The fly in the ointment is its modest size — there were moments last evening when he sounded underpowered when paired with Stemme, especially in the second half of the very long Love Duet, here performed uncut.

It became obvious later that he was merely pacing himself in Act 2. In the crucial Act 3 delirium scene, he gave his all, in a remarkable, heartfelt and deeply moving account of this most daunting of dramatic tenor scene. Since fine Tristans don’t grow on trees, he’s a welcome addition to the roster, currently rather depleted. It’s going to take time for him to grow and mature into the role. Even someone as high profile as Jonas Kaufmann is only attempting Act 2 for the time being, and with mixed results. With further seasoning, I think Mr. Siegel will be an excellent Tristan.

Unlike the tendency towards “semi-staged” versions, this Tristan was a typical concert performance. The singers entered from upstage — between the pipes of the organ (!) onto a raised platform. Each sat when not singing, and all used a score except Stemme, who remarkably did it all from memory.  Given the elevated platform, the voices sounded amazingly loud and clear from my vantage point in the Dress Circle.  There was no attempt to “act out” anything — the two leads very occasionally looked at each other, but they never touched. Translations were projected onto a makeshift screen above.

Musically, it was a marvellous performance, and it made my long six-hour drive to Cleveland totally worthwhile. The gleaming sound coming from the orchestra was an unalloyed pleasure, as were the translucent strings and the mellow woodwinds, with their lovely depth of tone, and everything in perfect balance. If I were to nitpick, there were a few moments of imprecision in the horns that opened Act 2, and occasionally a note would be off here and there in the course of the evening. But for me, such minor blemishes are not important in the grander scheme of things. Taken in its totality, this Tristan was a performance to honour and enjoy.

Welser-Möst’s tempi tend to be on the brisk side, and last evening he did not dawdle. It started 10 minutes late, and with two intermissions (40 minutes and 20 minutes), last notes were heard at approximately 10:50 p.m., the performance took four hours forty minutes, remarkably fast given that there were no cuts. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say it went by in a flash!  The audience was exceptionally well behaved, with no cell phone mishaps. I was especially impressed with how they held off on the clapping at the end.  I’m not so sure that other, so-called sophisticated audiences like the ones in New York or Toronto would have been so patient.

The performance was well attended but not sold out, and with each passing act, there were fewer people in the seats. That said, there were enough true devotees left at the end, and they showed their appreciation with vociferous ovations.  I was startled by a couple of boo-birds, who seemed to reserve their ire for the tenor and a couple of the orchestral solo musicians. There’s always a naysayer in each crowd, as they say. For my money, I’d be in seventh heaven if I get to hear such superlative music-making on a regular basis.

Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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