If your principal exposure to live opera is here in London – or for that matter anywhere else in the UK – you could be forgiven for thinking Daniel Harding did not have all that much form in conducting any. Never seen at the Coliseum at all, his Covent Garden track record comprises just two operas – The Turn of the Screw and Wozzeck – in 2002 and 2006 respectively, and that’s it. But of course, if you’re a regular at either La Scala, Salzburg or Aix-en-Provence, you’d have encountered him practically non-stop over the past ten years or so. Moral: there is no honour for prophets in their own land. And the loss is ours, as tonight’s concert performance of what is basically a long love duet with prologue and coda most emphatically demonstrated.
There’s also the small matter of tonight’s Tristan, Peter Seiffert, who in a stage career of thirty-five years’ duration has sung at Covent Garden just the once, in 1988, evidently so insignificant an event in his biography that it receives no mention in tonight’s programme, where 18 other front-rank houses all at least merit a mention. Isn’t it high time that casting at the ROH was entrusted to someone with ears? [rhetoric to which we all know the answer already. Long since]. If it weren’t for concert performances here in London, we would never have had the opportunity of hearing Seiffert as Tannhäuser or Walther von Stolzing (both at the RFH with Zürich forces); or doubtless Tristan, as afforded us tonight – at least in part - at the Barbican. And who does the ROH prefer to cast in this repertory? The sorely-taxed Ben Heppner, the leaden, pinched Simon O’Neill and the sorely-unwatchable Johan Botha. Somebody’s Hungarian head should be served up to his preferred (and, it goes without saying, voiceless) Salome soonest.
And then there’s Iréne Theorin, fifteen of whose twenty-odd performances to date at the ROH comprised endless outings way back in 2005 and 2007 of Helmwige in Die Walküre (she’s the one with the same high Bs and Cs-capped “Ho-jo-to-hos” in Act III as Brünnhilde’s opening salvo in Act II, and is often enough taken by a Brünnhilde-in-waiting, as indeed was the case here, though our most recent exponent of the role last year had neither note securely in her vocal armoury. Where was Ms. Theorin then, when we really needed her? Absent from the house for the past five years, and next year repeating her Turandot) Frankly, the standard of casting, and particularly German repertory casting, at the ROH is so abysmally low when not positively bizarre I’m only surprised the Arts Council doesn’t have something to say about it (too busy number-crunching and downsizing, I suppose. Will we ever hear Kaufmann sing so much as a bar of Wagner in Bow Street?) And yet here, for one night only, the LSO manages to procure the services of as satisfying a Tristan ensemble cast as could be assembled today (the only finer one being, for now, purely speculative and theoretical on my part: Kaufmann, Lise Lindstrom and Elina Garanca).
Could there be criticisms offered of tonight’s singing? Well, yes. Mark Stone blustered disagreeably as Melot (his one line in the second act as Kurwenal being a gabbled warning anyway). I don’t care for Christianne Stotijn’s voice, which has more than a passing touch of the marbles-in-a-blender, gargling sound I so dislike when the least pressure is applied to it, though I wouldn’t question either her artistry – which is considerable – or her commitment – which is absolute – in bringing Brangäne to very life before us, and looking far more of a Pre-Raphaelite Irish princess than the steely platinum-blonde Theorin at her side. Theorin’s voice is uncommonly interesting, though the mid-range in which rather too much manipulative machinery is to be heard isn’t among it, the vibrato biting a tad too deeply into the tone which can spread and lose pitch-definition as a result. But show the woman anything above the stave and she simply lights up, the voice both crystal clear and thrillingly ample, even though I do marginally prefer Stemme in the role (where would Wagner be these days without the Scandinavians in general, and the Swedes in particular?). She has the stamina, she has the control, and she has the manner. Theorin, Stemme and Nilsson are by some margin the finest exponents of Isolde I’ve ever encountered, and I look forward to the day I get to see her live on stage in the complete role (please God not in Christof Loy’s drivelling dumbshow for Covent Garden).
Peter Seiffert is really rather a wonder of the age: and certainly a wonder at his own, which is about to turn 60. Some ten or so years ago, around the time of the RFH Tannhäuser, I had thought the once so focussed tone had spread a bit too far, and that from there on in, it was inevitable that wobble and decline could only become more prominent year-on-year. So much for theory. Here we are, a decade on, and the voice remains the same: if anything, it’s actually firmer in emission. And it is most certainly louder, the tone having filled out to admiration. He scarcely had any greater difficulty in projecting his voice, especially above the stave, than Theorin, a fraction of his age and accumulated vocal effort: and that a man of all-but 60, who started out as a Mozartian of exquisite grace and refinement, should end up able to surmount Wagner’s utterly mad, OCD-esque vocal writing in this of all acts, is little short of miraculous. (On which basis, what might we have had if only Wunderlich had lived?) A memory-lapse immediately after Melot’s outraged outburst late in the act sent him straight back to his music stand which involved a short Schoenbergian stretch of singing: otherwise, he was as near perfect as makes no difference. He has, sad to say, become very stout indeed, to a point that his height can now hardly offset: and wearing a cleverly-arranged Edwardian black frock-coat, with a waistcoat, tie-pin and half glasses, the resemblance to one of Thomas Hardy’s grander provincial headmasters struck me as unfortunate, particularly as the essential über-lover Tristan. But he is theatrically animated and effective in both expression and movement, and fiercely committed, as none of Bow Street’s current Wagner tenors are, and one can only despair at a policy which has kept this man out of the house for over 25 years.
And there was another wonder of the age on display tonight, too. Matti Salminen, now in his 69th year, as King Mark. The emission has loosened: but not by very much. And the tone has thinned, just a bit. But no other Mark in my experience can hold a candle to the sheer depths of anguish he is capable of summoning up, so that though Pape may well have the edge in absolute vocal terms – or Georg Zeppenfeld, better still – neither actually feels the role to the extent he does, and communicates it to the audience with such astonishing emotional force. In the wrong hands, the King is just a long-winded old bore: here, he was both heart-breaking and heart-stopping, and I don’t expect ever to hear the essence of the role better conveyed hereafter.
The LSO played at the very peak of its form, which in the Barbican’s shallow, unforgiving acoustic meant that the singers were always going to be at a disadvantage in terms of balance, steam-rollered by the wall of orchestral noise washing over them (and us). But Harding has the measure of the piece, and balances out the hysterical and contemplative extremes of this most extreme of scores with admirable control, at his best evincing the sort of incandescence which only Karl Böhm used to bring to Wagner (though both Vickers and Nilsson had their work cut out for them keeping pace with him at Orange). Brangäne’s offstage warnings, delivered from the choir door at the back of the platform, was the only miscalculation of effect tonight, far too close and unatmospheric, unlike the hallooing nocturnal hunt’s brass dotted hither-and-yon at an ideal distance outside the auditorium at the beginning of the act. I suppose it’s both invidious and impractical to start singling out individuals, but I can’t forbear from giving a special mention to the bass clarinet of Lorenzo Iosco, playing of such poise and feeling as to render his introduction to and punctuation of King Mark’s despairing monologue the very aural ideogram of grief. Magnificent, tout court.
Can we have Act III next year? With this cast? Please?
Photographs © Barbara Zeininger (Seiffert);