Last year, German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin made her sensational debut with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, stepping in to replace an unwell Eva-Maria Westbroek as Isolde opposite Stuart Skelton’s Tristan, in two concert performances of Wagner’s masterpiece. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be there will never forget the extraordinary combination of dignity and passion with which she approached the role.
Gun-Brit Barkmin. Photo © Florian Kalotay
It came as no surprise that Barkmin was quickly invited back to perform with WASO and Principal Conductor Asher Fisch. Neither did it come as any surprise that the resulting gala concert, An Evening with Gun-Brit Barkmin, proved every bit as compelling, provocative and emotionally draining – in a good way – as that of Tristan und Isolde.
This was in a large part due to Barkmin’s fierce devotion to letter and spirit, to reaching into the body of the text and tearing out its heart to hold up before the audience.
The heroic Leonore, sacrificing all to rescue her husband Florestan from the clutches of arch-enemy Don Pizarro, in Beethoven’s Fidelio (we heard Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?). The sensitive interpreter of Richard Strauss’s valedictory, bittersweet Four Last Songs – Frühling, September, Beim Schlafengehen and Im Abendrot.
The saintly Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, singing to the hall of Wartburg Castle ahead of the song contest she hopes will restore her spirits and Tannhäuser to her (we heard Dich teure Halle). The unhinged Salome performing with the disembodied head of Jochanaan a ghastly, depraved duet for one (we heard the opera’s final scene).
All in one night! Too much? No, because Barkmin was as alive to the expressive trajectory of the concert as a whole as she was to the minutiae.
How else could she connect Leonore’s uncomplicated devotion with Elisabeth’s more troubled love for Tannhäuser and Salome’s febrile obsession with Jochanaan? And indeed, how could we hear echoes of Beim Schlafengehen in that final scene, the dream become a nightmare?
Voice, gesture, facial expression: all spinning fearlessly out from a still centre into maelstroms of feeling analogous to the way Strauss, in Salome, spins out from a tonal centre into an obscene, psycho-sexual dance.
Getting back to the whole and its parts: the success of this concert was also, in a very large part, due to Fisch’s planning as much as his execution. As Gordon Kalton Williams wrote in his excellent program note, “In short, this concert is a snapshot of the German Romantic period – Beethoven begat Wagner who begat Mahler and Richard Strauss.”
This is true. But there are other interesting aspects of the structure to consider. For example, the singer’s various personae as idée fixe or ritornello. Each vocal item preceded by its own overture: Fidelio Overture, Tannhäuser’s Entrance of the Guests and Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils; hence the inclusion of Mahler’s First Symphony reject, Blumine, with its evocations of spring, before Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Leonore and Salome as polar opposites – saint and sinner, maiden and whore – to bookend the concert.
Perhaps I’m only scratching the surface here. What of the orchestral playing? So many opportunities here, for exquisite cantabile solos, for concertante-style ensembles, for ravishing string playing and tutti climaxes of colossal power. None was missed.
But the last word should go to a fellow concert-goer who was seated behind me: “That Gun-Brit sure makes a good nutter.” High praise indeed.