Tristan und Isolde

(Queensland Music Festival)


Opera by Richard Wagner

Professional production

This six-hour production was a magnificent finale to the Queensland Music Festival, and the audience in the Concert Hall gave it a rousing standing ovation, which was thoroughly deserved.

It took 140 years from its first performance in Munich, but at last Brisbane has experienced Tristan und Isolde in three acts, albeit in a concert version.

Wagner’s tragic romantic tale is set in the legendary Celtic world of the early middle ages. The familiar story opens with Isolde (Lisa Gasteen) being taken from Ireland on a boat commanded by Tristan (John Treleaven) to Cornwall where she is, against her will, to marry King Mark (Bruce Martin).

The mission of the Queensland Music Festival is “to deliver a music festival of international excellence accessible to Queenslanders from all walks of life”, and once again it has discharged its mission brilliantly. In this case, we had the special pleasure of Queensland-born Lisa Gasteen performing. She is a regular guest at the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden in London, the Berlin Staatsoper, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but sadly, little seen and heard in Brisbane. Her strong, passionate, sustained performance made it a truly great homecoming. Conductor Richard Mills is also a Queenslander by birth, having been born and raised in Toowoomba. Mills has very strong connections to Brisbane and to the original Biennial Music Festivals set up by Premier and Arts Minister Wayne Goss in the early ’90s.

The Australian Youth Orchestra gave an inspired performance. Thirty percent of these gifted young musicians come from Queensland, including Dale Barltrop, concertmaster, who returned from the USA for this performance.

But it was not a performance for the faint-hearted. It went from 5pm to 11pm with two intervals including a dinner break, yet the music and drama remained gripping throughout.

It is not easy for the singers to convey the breadth of operatic drama in a concert version, which lacks costumes and sets, but Lisa Gasteen and John Treleaven did so superbly. Gasteen showed the whole gamut of emotions from thundering rage to the tenderest of love, and her magnificent performance illustrated the reasons why she has become one of the world’s foremost interpreters of the Wagner/Strauss heroines.

Wagner was heavily influenced by the writings of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who wrote of the illusory nature of the world, as we perceive it, with its inevitable frustration and pain. The tortured lovers seek refuge in night and death “O come down knight of love,” they sing. “Make me forget I live.’’

In a contemporary world of suicide bombers, this 19th century glorification of death has a double edge. Can we surrender to the dark side in pursuit of romanticism?

The Australian Youth Orchestra conducted by Richard Mills

Played one night only Saturday, 30 July 2005

Running time: 6 hours including interval

— Matt Foley
(Performance seen: Fri 29th July 2005)