Tristan and Isolde review -Opera Chaser

An accomplished Tristan and Isolde makes its mark from an increasingly ambitious Melbourne Opera

The determination and ambitiousness that percolates within an increasingly confident Melbourne Opera came in the form of a musically secure, vocally accomplished and exciting production of Tristan and Isolde at the Palais Theatre Monday night. Apart from a minor technical hitch that saw temporary loss of surtitles and background projections, not even the disastrous cancellation of Friday night’s opening (due to an indisposed Isolde) impeded the quality of professionalism on display.

Following successful productions of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, this gargantuan three-act work that explores love’s transcendental and intoxicating potency was an unequivocal achievement and one that positions the company high on a national level.

Blurring rationality and reason and tension between love and death, Wagner takes us to a space with music and drama in which plot gives way to mood and where the cogs of psychological states are surveyed in a story drawn from the medieval tale of the adulterous love between the Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Isolde.

Directed with overall appealing clarity by Suzanne Chaundy, the work is imbued with intelligently conceived symbolic features that demarcate each act despite missing the potential to mine the fervency of the Act 2's central love duet. And though designs feature various beautiful stage pictures (sets Greg Carroll with digital artists Yandell Walton and Keith Deverell) incorporating Lucy Wilkins’ eclectic costumes and Lucy Birkinshaw’s evocative lighting, the execution doesn’t appear fully resolved.

In a career-defining performance, soprano Lee Abrahmsen exhibited an ever-burning radiance both in voice and presence as Isolde, convincingly navigating Isolde’s complex emotional paths and doing so with a markedly penetrating top and robust middle range. The blazing colour and expression Abrahmsen gave as she awaits Tristan to join her in concealed bliss in Act 2 continued the startling trajectory she set up in a hugely demanding and fine first act.

As her Tristan, Englishman Neal Cooper was superb in utilising his heated and muscular-voiced tenor and well-calibrated acting to great effect, sharing an effectual chemistry with Isolde and supplying Act 3 with searing emotion as he longs for Isolde and yearns for death.

Regular soloists at Melbourne Opera and a strong male chorus provided sizable support. Sarah Sweeting’s dark-hued and intuitive Brangäne, Michael Lampard’s loyal Kurwenal and Jason Wasley’s suspicious-eyed Melot all slotted in with solid depictions of character and Steven Gallop’s sympathetic King Marke was excellent.

But bringing in the expert Wagnerian and English conductor Anthony Negus was what paid off most impressively with a ravishing account of Wagner’s sublime score, particularly its thrilling crescendos, and played with meticulous sensitivity by the near-90 assembled musicians of Melbourne Opera Orchestra.

Reviewer: Paul Selar
Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun in edited form, 8th February, 2018
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