There are good reasons why Wagner wrote Acts One and Three of Tristan und Isolde. They bookend the ecstasy of Act Two, preparing the way for it and then leaving room to transform its heat-of-the-moment into something more transcendental. Plunging an audience “cold” into the lovers’ tryst, as the London Symphony Orchestra did on Thursday, has a disorienting effect. There’s no context: you have no opportunity to heat up, and at the end you’re left hanging.
It was a distinctly odd programme, all the stranger for preceding Wagner with a quasi-baroque tilt at Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony – no vibrato, no cantilena, no poetry, no consistency of tempo or phrasing, but plenty of glaring instrumental colours. Some conductors can pull off this sort of “period” experiment. Daniel Harding, who plays a useful Kapellmeister role with the LSO, is not one of them.
From there to the romantic expanses of a Wagner orchestra was not so much a leap as a jolt. It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine how the LSO’s programme planners believed a single act of Tristan could add up to an effective bicentenary tribute. With an experienced cast, it was clearly aimed at the Wagner faithful, not enough of whom turned out to sell the upper balcony. But it suggested Harding knows his way round Wagner better than he does much of the symphonic repertoire: he paced it well enough to make himself invisible.
There was not much atmosphere. Tristan and Isolde had to hymn the night beneath glaring spotlights, permanently separated by the conductor’s rostrum. Iréne Theorin radiated confidence, especially at the gleaming top of her voice. Peter Seiffert kept looking at his score, like a professor consulting his lecture notes, but sang with freedom and full-bodied tone. Christianne Stotijn’s Brangaene seemed less inside her role. All were upstaged by Matti Salminen’s King Mark. The veteran Finnish bass can probably boast the longest international career of any opera singer today. His voice has lost a little at the top but its timbre remains full and warm, and he knows when to refine it to a breath. Forget the lovers’ romantic paradise: this Tristan was worth it for Salminen’s quiet dignity.