REVIEW: Julian Joseph's Tristan and Isolde at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Tristan and Isolde
Photo credit: BBC/Mark Allan

Julian Joseph's Tristan and Isolde
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, 6 October 2018. Review by Dominic Williams)

Tristan and Isolde (or Iseult) is an early medieval Celtic story in which Isolde, travelling from Ireland to Brittany to marry King Mark, falls in love with Tristan, her escort. There are sub-plots concerning a love potion; Tristan’s involvement in the killing of Isolde’s brother; and a treacherous page who betrays them to King Mark’s men. Richard Wagner wrote his operatic version in the 1860s using unresolved chord sequences to suggest unsatisfied sexual longing which was only resolved in the end by Isolde’s death (la mort and la petite mort, as the French would say). The opera was panned initially by Leipzig's Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung as “the glorification of sensual pleasure, tricked out with every titillating device" (all those heaving Wagnerian bosoms, presumably...).

Here, Julian Joseph and his librettist, Michael Philips, update the action to contemporary Transylvania, ditching the page and the potions from the plot. Following a presentation as a work in progress in 2013, [REVIEWED], they also removed most of the Wagnerian chords, sensibly enough, since this libretto is mainly about multiculturalism not sexual frustration. The result musically has diverse influences and is as much Ellingtonian as Wagnerian.

This was a hugely ambitious enterprise featuring, from back to front of the stage, the BBC Singers, the BBC Concert Orchestra (plus members of the Julian Joseph All Star Big Band), the five main singers and the Julian Joseph piano trio (Mark Hodgson bass and Jerry Brown drums).

With a running time well beyond an hour, of mainly scored music, that’s a lot of writing. So, while the musical action swung from full string sections to the jazz trio with every combination in between, it is not surprising that the trio and jazz improvisations came out more in the second act. There were some motifs to chime with the story telling – an Eastern flavour here, Dixieland brass there – and the brass section switched seamlessly from classical to jazz and back, with solos for saxophone and trumpet. The narrative was slightly held up by bass and drum solos as well but these were good enough that nobody minded at all. The trio and orchestra were not quite seamlessly integrated; Clark Rundell, the orchestral conductor, and Julian Joseph were sometimes both directing at the same time, which caused the occasional glitch but more rehearsal time would solve that.

Structurally, the piece was divided up into clearly marked song sections, with pauses in between, and no spoken lines or recitativo. However, there was relatively little repetitive melody in the shape of songs. In operatic terms, they were not arias. There were probably only two tunes to hum on the way home, both of which emerged late in the first act and were reprised towards the end – and very beautiful they were, too. Some of the other sections also stuck in the memory, though, such as Tristan’s evocation of the delights of Transylvania.

The singers had a stiff technical challenge, with long passages to sight read and a libretto packed with words needing careful enunciation – like “Krakow” and “perambulator”, quite apart from the need to sing well. They were fantastic. Carleen Anderson as Isolde displayed a range from Tina Turner growl to full operatic mezzo. Ken Papenfus as Tristan is a clear-toned tenor who could be a great jazz voice if he were not busy elsewhere. In the lesser roles, Cleveland Watkiss (Vasile) had a scene-stealing improvisation on the word “Cuckoo” that was a highlight of the show; Christine Tobin (Iuliana/Brigid) has a talent for acting and let loose with a scat solo, while Renato Paris (Marko) was entirely believable as a bombastic gangster boss.

Julian Joseph
Photo credit BBC/Mark Allan
Big artistic endeavours like this do not always lend themselves to instant judgment and usually reward further listening. The Wagner opera took years to be fully appreciated, after all, so I hope we get the chance to hear this many times again. What I can say is that we, the audience, sat absolutely engrossed through the whole performance and cheered loudly at the end, which is a good start for any new work.

It was not a flawless performance and if you are the kind of person who keeps your 12” vinyls in alphabetical order in a climate controlled cabinet, this concert probably wasn’t for you. Jazz and perfectionism do not often go together and some people might worry the work is too stylistically varied, needs pruning in parts and runs out of steam slightly towards the end – but you equally could say that about the Bible or indeed Escalator Over The Hill, both of which have stood the test of time. I would not let it spoil my enjoyment.

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