Proms diary: Tristan and Isolde
Semyon Bychkov conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a cast led by soprano Violeta Urmana and tenor Robert Dean Smith
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As storm clouds gathered over South Kensington, Semyon Bychkov lifted his baton to conduct Wagner's offering to Love, Tristan and Isolde. At a little over four hours, the opera was a bit of light relief for the Prommers and Wagnerites who had been sitting through the first three parts of the Ring cycle during the week – with just Götterdämmerung still to be performed the following day.
Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle, who had been performing the Ring, ceded the stage to the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a cast led by soprano Violeta Urmana as Isolde and tenor Robert Dean Smith as Tristan. If any of Wagner's operas is suited to concert performance, this is surely it. Astonishingly little happens for about three and a half hours of the work - this is the ultimate psychological drama and it plays out in the music.
And what music! From the revolutionary opening 'Tristan' chord, Wagner paints a picture of despair, hopeless longing and sensual nihilism. Bychkov and the orchestra revelled in it - unfortunately, often at the expense of the singers, who were inaudible for much of Act III.
Urmana was an empathetic Isolde and her voice had depth, passion and a gleaming top end. Tenor Robert Dean Smith was a last minute replacement for Peter Seiffert and, although his voice was beautiful, it lacked something of the power of Urmana's. Though the orchestra didn't help the balance issues.
Mihoko Fujimura's Brangäne and Kwangchul Youn's King Mark were excellent, each stealing a couple of scenes - Fujimura with Brangäne's 'Einsam wachend' aria and Youn with Mark's doleful lament for Tristan's betrayal.
Despite these high points, the work didn't really come alive - everything felt a little too polite for an opera which is, essentially, a four-hour explosion of desire - until the closing Liebestod. But those closing 10 minutes are some of the most heart-wrenching in all of opera and at this point Urmana, along with Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra acquitted themselves well.
Photos: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Listen again to this Prom on BBC iPlayer here. It will also be broadcast on BBC Four on 1 September.