Federation Concert Hall, Hobart
November 22, 2016

The clapping never ceases. I’m on my feet and can just see the stage through the crowd, pulsing with hundreds of slamming hands. It’s been at least three minutes of continuous applause, and shows no sign of concluding as our soloists return to the stage for countless ‘final’ bows. Whistles and calls of ‘bravo’ sound from all corners of the concert hall, and the musicians are beaming.

This is the way the night ends when the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra presents Wagner’s epic love story Tristan und Isolde. To call it a ‘huge success’ is accurate, yet grossly understated – it is a world-class marathon of continuous song and music from a collection of our generation’s finest performers.

Downsized from its regular five-hour duration into a two-hour concoction (of the best bits), the TSO’s Tristan und Isolde takes us through an explosive drama of two lovers who should never have been. Three abridged acts are sung in German by Nina Stemme (Isolde), Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Monika Bohinec (Brangane). Marko Letonja conducts the orchestra and the men of the TSO Chorus make brief appearances.

The music opens with the Prelude, appropriately spaced and surprisingly restrained – after which our two female stars enter, Stemme in gold and Bohinec in silver. Surtitles take us through the story, which begins here with Isolde determined to end her life with Tristan – the man who had murdered her fiancé. Bohinec’s part is most prominent in the first act, in which her voice is both mature and audacious. It’s also beautifully paired with Stemme, and they’re both dressed in a way which, oddly, fits their performance: if one associates a coldness, or metallic quality with silver, this is what Bohinec exudes in comparison to Stemme’s golden and rich tone. These are two of the finest voices I’ve heard in this concert hall – and the TSO has brought them together tonight.

Occasionally, a door on the side of the stage will open to reveal a small snapshot of the TSO Chorus’ male singers, whose bass is absent or diluted through their position in this back hallway. It distances them from the main action, giving an impressive aural perception of space that would have been simply executed in a full production – but is innovative and efficient without such staging.

Our Tristan enters, back straight and fittingly haughty as he projects far beyond the dynamic of the orchestra. He’s stage right, Letonja coming between him and Stemme. The dreaded moment comes when they drink a love potion, swapped from poison by Bohinec. The bond fuelled by pain is transformed into longing and love. Stemme smiles – chillingly – and Skelton walks behind Letonja to join her in what is about to become one of history’s most tragic partnerships.

The first act ends and is explosively well received by the audience. We take a short break to sip some champagne, before sneaking back into the concert hall as our lovers meet after dark in Act II.

Skelton and Stemme have very little chemistry in the way of visuals. But when you hear them sing together, you can hear the ‘oneness’ – the unity – that Wagner writes about. They are equals, and the tone and expression aligns. We are spun into their crazed world of love in Act 2, until Tristan is gravely wounded. As we continue with the third act, the gentleman next to me is gripping his thighs, his back tense in his seat. The orchestra performs magnificently as it moves us through waves of longing, dread, hope, delirium – not letting us find resolution among any of them.

Toward the end, Tristan finally dies (well, takes a seat to the edge of the stage) and Isolde sings us into her final notes – entirely oblivious to the tragedy, and losing herself to an imagined love. A musical climax is reached, though after two hours of ascending tension, it doesn’t leave us at peace. It does, however, receive a standing ovation from a full house – and touch our hearts with a dizzying and remarkable musical event. The emotionally unrestrained gentleman who sits beside me came from Adelaide – one of many in the audience who travelled far to see the orchestra tonight. Though I’m from Hobart, I can certainly say this was worth the journey.