Perth Concert Hall
August 16, 2018

What a way for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra to ring in its 90th year, and what a joyful, astonishing night at the opera. With the marvellous Asher Fisch at the podium and a top drawer cast that belongs on any world stage, this concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was a night hotly anticipated – and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, one could say it exceeded expectations, particularly as the scheduled Isolde – the very fine Eva-Maria Westbroek – withdrew due to illness earlier this month, a real disappointment to her fans. Her replacement, the German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, was far from a shabby last-minute stand in. Rather, she gave an extraordinarily complete portrayal, all the more remarkable given that this was only her second go at Isolde.

Gun-Brit Barkmin. All photos supplied by West Australian Symphony Orchestra

With an intriguingly girlish timbre allied to an instrument of substantial weight and steel, Barkmin’s Isolde was every bit the proud, Irish princess in the first act. It’s always a joy to hear a singer in their native tongue, and the soprano’s linguistic authority made every syllable count in the Perth Concert Hall. Although some climactic notes didn’t come quite that easily, and intonation was just shy of the mark in a few instances, Barkmin more than compensated for it with her assured dramatic instincts and innate ability to give shape and point to phrases. She also has a solid lower register and sings with a keen musicality, meaning any wishes for greater tonal refulgence were put to the side.

The first act belonged entirely to Barkmin, Isolde’s Narrative and Curse (where she describes how she was unable to slay Tristan, the man who has murdered her betrothed), a self-flagellating mixture of shame, rage and grief. The way she spits out “now I’m servant to the vassal” with a shiver of disgust will stick in your mind. A surprisingly pacy reading from Fisch helped Barkmin put her own stamp on the Liebestod – rather than an Isolde consumed by her wondrous visions, this was a deeply human account that felt frank and conversational, the beatific smile on Barkmin’s face signalling an end to grief and the discovery of joy.

Barkmin’s Tristan was no slouch either. A frisson ran through the room when Stuart Skelton strode onstage, hailing the return of an Australian artist who’s had great success abroad. The tenor seems only to grow in stature with each assumption of the role, and his stage experience translated well to this concert setting – this was a considered dramatic portrayal as well as a vocally thrilling one. He achieved an easy rapport with his loyal servant, Kurwenal, and nailed the mixture of concerted aloofness and courtliness that Tristan puts on to conceal his true feelings about Isolde.

Stuart Skelton, Asher Fisch and Gun-Brit Barkmin

The man cuts no corners, singing crucial phrases with the power they deserve. With near unflagging stamina (the top went ever so slightly awry for a moment in that punishing final act) and complex colour, Skelton is a Tristan for the ages. No unsubtle sledgehammer though, he does a mean pianissimo, as was on abundant display in the love duet of Act II. Done in full, this middle act can too often feel like a middle child – a bit ignored as it’s (wrongly) considered not particularly interesting. What Skelton and Barkmin did was restore its urgency, building painfully to the long sought for climax so cruelly disrupted by Kurwenal. The pair’s tender lyricism and aching admissions of desire stopped time, while Skelton’s masterful handling of the final act was utterly engrossing. With Fisch and the orchestra in inspired partnership, the fevered hallucinations of Act III left one shattered.

The rest of the cast rose to the fearsome standard set by the central pair, particularly Ekaterina Gubanova’s committed Brangäne. In the Christa Ludwig school, her lush, port-coloured mezzo was utter bliss, particularly when wielded with so much musicality and understanding of drama. Having performed the role all around the world – she appeared opposite Skelton’s Tristan in the Met’s 2016 production – Gubanova knows her stuff and it shows. Sung from the gallery, Brangäne’s warning during the lover’s tryst provoked sighs of delight from the audience, while her nuanced, eloquent portrayal made her a perfect foil for Isolde.

Asher Fisch, Gun-Brit Barkmin and Ekaterina Gubanova

Boaz Daniel is a much experienced Kurwenal, who audiences will remember from the Sydney Symphony’s concert presentation of Tristan in 2015. Deftly effective as Tristan’s confidante, he brought rich tone and sympathetic stage presence to the part, bringing him into clearer focus than is often seen elsewhere. His is an honest, forthright Kurwenal that plays off his Tristan well.

After Barkmin, the night’s true discovery was Ain Anger’s Marke. It’s a luxurious bass instrument that you could quite happily take a bath in, and the Estonian bass was nothing short of brilliant as the wronged King of Cornwall. Naturally imposing, with oodles of presence, he showed audiences a man who has discovered an irreparable fracture in his world. His questioning of Tristan was deliberately done and performed without overt emotion, but all the more affecting for it – this is a man whose iron grip on self-discipline is the only thing left to him. Fissures in this steely surface soon showed, pointing to something that hadn’t made itself known to this reviewer in the past. Just as Tristan and Isolde experience the most human, even base emotions, so too does Marke – he is a walking embodiment of humiliation and disappointment in this middle act. Anger’s portrayal of Marke as eminently reasonable made his injury register even more gravely, while his choked admission – he has been forced to spy on his own friend – spoke of profound hurt and was a difficult acknowledgement of his own failings.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra

The rest of the supporting cast acquitted themselves well – Angus Wood’s suitably slimy Melot, Paul O’Neill’s finely sung sailor and shepherd, and Andrew Foote’s steersman. The chorus had to huddle just offstage, but also turned in fine performances if sometimes lacking in bite and that last bit of blend. But perhaps the real stars of the evening were Asher Fisch and the orchestra, who gave a beautifully shaped, precise reading that was all the more moving for its sense of restraint. Rich in texture and grand in scope, this was an expansively paced reading that built mercilessly in moments of tension. Fisch conducted with an innate understanding of the work’s long view – gilded with orchestral detail but subsumed within a larger whole, climaxes here felt earnt, as when Isolde extinguishes her torch or when Tristan thinks he sees the approaching ship.

The most striking element of Fisch’s reading was the sense that the music was continuously unfolding in one line, yet keenly attuned to the drama. Sensitive to his singers’ needs, he nevertheless was not afraid to whip up orchestral thunder when required. Under his baton, O sink hernieder felt painfully intimate, while the Liebestod, although done at a faster clip, achieved a numinous quality that was spell-like. Special mentions must also go to Leanne Glover’s cor anglais solo at the beginning of Act III, which resembled speech in its hypnotic vividness, and Brent Grapes’ stirring, eloquent turn on the Holztrompete, fashioned specially for the event. Plangent woodwinds met string playing of often heart-stopping beauty, while the horns were also on sweet form. Where required, the players stretched aching melodies that only throbbed with greater intensity as time passed. Quite simply, this was magnificent playing of the highest order, rewarded on opening as the audience roared to their feet.

There’s one concert left, and it’s my duty to urge you to get yourself there by any means possible. WASO has never sounded better, and you’ll not encounter this stunning cast again.

WASO’s Tristan und Isolde has one more performance on August 19