Tristan and Isolde is an opera that stirs strong reactions among opera lovers. That Grange Park decided to mount it in what they describe as a “concert performance” is a mark of the company’s serious ambitions – and, despite the fact that some of the singers carry scores, there is every bit as much action on the platform as in some recent fully staged performances elsewhere. The outcome is not quite a triumph but it is a very fine version with an Isolde of real distinction in Rachel Nicholls.
Tristan and Isolde is famously difficult to cast because of the enormous demands of the two central roles and Grange Park had the misfortune to lose two of their original choices. Mats Almgren was drafted in to sing King Marke and, in place of the original Isolde, we had Rachel Nicholls, a rising British star who was simply superb.
The opera tells the story of Breton knight, Tristan, who is sent by King Marke of Cornwall to fetch Isolde from Ireland so that she can become his queen. However, Isolde and Tristan have a history of thwarted passion and Isolde decides to poison herself and Tristan rather than marry Marke. But her maid substitutes a love potion for the poison intended by Isolde and tragedy ensues.
The most striking feature of this performance is the way that conductor Martyn Brabbins ensures that the singers and the orchestra blend together in real harmony, a difficult feat given the orchestral forces that Wagner deploys, sometimes in a way that challenges the vocal power of lesser singers. This is no doubt helped by the friendly acoustics of the small Grange Park auditorium but the rapport between conductor, singers, and players seems very strong. Brabbins brought the best out of the Bournemouth Orchestra; the chorus sang well but were rather obviously a concert chorus unused to moving around a stage.
Bryan Register was not my perfect Tristan. He has a lovely tenor voice and sounds wonderful in the romantic passages but he lacks the clarion tone of the best Wagnerian tenors and sounded exhausted by the last act – it is a role that must feel like running three marathons in quick succession. Rachel Nicholls has a stunning voice and real dramatic flair – her top notes were not always beautiful but, given the immense demands of the role, it was an admirable performance and the beauty and dramatic impact of her liebestod was magical. Sara Fulgoni was an outstanding Brangane and Stephen Gadd as Kurwenal sang with dramatic impact despite using his score throughout. Mats Almgren, the late replacement as King Marke, has a rich deep bass voice and clearly knew the part backwards. In a role that sometimes seems limp, he was forceful and believable.
At his best Wagner reaches the heights but he can be long-winded and some of the explanatory passages in Tristan, while beautiful, do delay the action. The final act passage where Tristan wallows in his despair and then anticipates the arrival of Isolde did drag and Bryan Register was audibly tiring. Even so, this version of the opera was immensely powerful, it was sung well, and it told the story with clarity and dramatic force. May the team at Grange Park Opera flourish in the new home they take over next year.