Tuesday, August 31, 2021, Royal Albert Hall, London

Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from 5.00 p.m.

One of the very greatest of operas (for me its twin peak is Verdi’s Otello), Wagner’s seminal Tristan und Isolde transferred from its recent Glyndebourne run to the Royal Albert Hall for one night only. It made for terrific listening in excellent broadcast sound, relayed with a tangibility and power perhaps not presented in quite the same way to those present in the venue.

The London Philharmonic was in superb form, suggesting that Robin Ticciati (Glyndebourne music director) conducted like a man possessed (the score given without cuts, he said) while introducing expressive ebb and flow and dynamic contrasts, and the singing was pretty damn marvellous – in itself, in total commitment, and in vivid characterisation.

Here then was a genuine music-drama, the numerous (six) semi-staged performances carrying uninhibitedly into this concert presentation.

Act I seared with passion (however illicit for the named pair, initiated as it is by Isolde’s maid Brangäne’s swapping of potions), trepidation, and closing exultation as the ship reached Cornwall, and, at times, presaged the ultimate tragedy: Tristan’s death and Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’.

Act II (centred on a night-time hunt setting off from King Mark’s castle, as Tristan and Isolde excitedly anticipate their moonlight tryst) was palpably dangerous; the music soared before becoming privately rapturous … then Mark (the imposing John Relyea), Isolde’s intended, catches the pair and is heartbroken at his nephew’s duplicitousness. Tristan and his betrayer Melot sword-fight, Tristan is badly injured.

The opening of Act III was as doom-laden as I have ever heard it – and brought an unexpected change, the withdrawal of Simon O’Neill due to losing his voice, although he remained visible as an actor, with Neal Cooper now singing Tristan from the wings and continuing as Melot. Meanwhile … Tristan deliriously alternates sleep and consciousness, a shepherd’s pipe is heard (an expressive cor anglais solo from Sue Böhling) that will also signal Isolde’s arrival, to which Tristan rallies but dies before the reunion can take place. Allowing that Kurwenal has disposed of Melot, to avenge Tristan, it’s Isolde’s farewell to the World – her ‘Liebestod’ – that is this opera’s glory, especially when sung with the ecstasy that Miina-Liisa Värelä wrung from it and when so transfigured as the LPO managed. The long-held silence before applause was very gratifying.

Tristan: Simon O’Neill, tenor
Isolde: Miina-Liisa Värelä, soprano
Brangäne: Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano
Kurwenal: Shen Yang, baritone
King Mark: John Relyea, bass
Melot: Neal Cooper, tenor
Shepherd/Young Sailor: Stuart Jackson, tenor
London Philharmonic Orchestra