License article

Tristan und Isolde review: Sydney Symphony brings radiance to wonderful Wagner


Sydney Opera House, June 20

This is the first live Sydney performance of one of Wagner's music dramas – mature works from The Ring onwards – since Opera Australia's Mastersingers in 2003. 

Yet, only live performance – whether in the concert hall or opera theatre – brings out Wagner's remarkable imaginative achievement in combining symphonic scale, theatrical moment and symbolic transformation of motives over a colossal time frame to produce experiences of overpowering intensity.

One sits from the opening stirrings of desire on the cello to the tumultuous conflicting emotions of jubilation and yearning at the close of the first act 80 minutes later almost without realising one has drawn breath. No one shapes such large arcs in time quite like Wagner.

Conductor David Robertson brought clarity and lucidity to this music; not only in balance of sound but in the coherence of musical idea.


Placed in front of the singers, the Sydney Symphony brought radiant colour, scrupulous care and well-formed phrasing to this great score.

By Wagnerian standards, Robertson's speeds are on the quick side and tend to move forward rather than linger. The eroticism of the Prelude was not hurried but neither was it over-languorous.

Yet, there was plenty of time when it was needed: the striking pause as the love draught is drunk in Act I or the expansiveness and care in the closing love-death.

Soprano Christine Brewer as Isolde captured that expansiveness with a voice of endless fluidity and measureless power. The line was never strained and the phrases seem to unfold like waves of time on the point of spilling into the infinite.

In the first act, the sense of effort was noticeable though the effect was still triumphant. In the second act, Brewer found a sense of flow which was maintained to the close.

Lance Ryan as Tristan is a heldentenor in the Siegfried mould, emphasising strength more than lyric tone. There were moments in the great duet of Act II where the pitch took a while to find its focus as it stemmed the surging orchestral tumult. But Ryan prevailed valiantly and found expressiveness in reserve for the despairing soliloquy of the third act.

Katarina Karneus as Brangane, Isolde's maid and supplier of illicit substances, sang with a rare mixture of colour, glowing focus and mercurial expressive flexibility, while John Relyea as the bewildered and notionally "wronged" King Marke, brought an affecting weight of woe and depth to the sound.

Boaz Daniel, as Tristan's loyal if excitable servant Kurwenal, sang with attractive uncomplicated bloom to his voice, while Angus Wood, as the treacherous Melot, had potent incisive edge.

Wagner introduces both outer acts of this exploration of the mythic subconscious with evocations of timeless folk melody and John Tessier  gave the unaccompanied sailor's song at the start lonely eloquence. Even more haunting was Alexandre Oguey's mellow-grained cor anglais solo for Act III with tenor John Tessier as the Shepherd.

Placing the singers behind rather than in front of the orchestra threw them an additional challenge and hearing the singers wrestle their way through this immense ensemble created an additional dimension of excitement.

However, there was no movement and the only gestures towards the theatrical were S. Katy Tucker's projected videos of symbolic images, young lovers, inky turbulence and land and seascapes. Try and catch it on Monday or you may have to wait a decade or two.

Tristan und Isolde is repeated on June 22.