Review: Julian Joseph’s Windows into Tristan and Isolde at The Royal Opera

Ken Papenfus, Carleeen Anderson, Christine Tobin, Cleveland Watkiss
(Back row: Mark Hodgson, Mark Mondesir)
Windows on Tristan, Royal Opera
Photo credit: Roger Thomas. All Rights Reserved

Windows into Tristan and Isolde
(Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House. 22nd September. Part of Deloitte Ignite. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

I don’t think I will hear anything more emotionally affecting this year than Carleen Anderson singing “The Night He Died” from Julian Joseph’s new work in progress Windows on Tristan. Just stunning. The ending of that section, with fabulous written parts for Russell Bennett on trumpet weaving counter-melodies and Shabaka Hutchings on deep-toned bass clarinet was – to my ears – the strongest moment of an interesting and varied evening of music being tried out for the first time.

Last night, six instrumentalists and four singers – rather than the “All Star Big Band the Royal Opera House’s website was still promising right up until the performance, what happened? – gave the premiere of five scenes from the third Julian Joseph/ Mike Phillips collaboration. The new work is based on a ‘why not?’ idea from ‘cellist Matthew Barley. This was very much a first try-out, but there was evidence a -plenty that there is strong music in Joseph’s score, and that all participants are giving the project real commitment.

Another joyous discovery of the evening – for me, at least – was the Tristan, singer Ken Papenfus. His origins are South African, he is a first cousin of Louis Moholo Moholo, and is from Belfast, his parents having fled their native country and settled in Ulster in the early 70’s. He dealt with the devilishly complex ideas in the vocal line and the  text –   eg “animals don’t understand man-made boundaries”-  and the volleys of words extremely well, but was at his best in the more soulful episodes where massive musicianship came to the fore. An admirer of Al Green or George Benson wouldn’t ever trek to the Royal Opera House to discover a jazz/soul singer of such class. I’m glad I did, this guy really has something special.

Christine Tobin and Cleveland Watkiss filled the minor roles – the opera term for having each or both of them involved would be ‘luxury casting’. They both sung their brand new parts from memory, showing both commitment to the project and their classiness. Joseph’s trio members Mark Hodgson on bass and Mark Mondesir on drums were impeccable, the latter bringing vivaciousness and enjoyment to each and every brush-stroke and rimshot. Richard Henry on bass trombone didn’t get a moment to shine, but his presence in every texture was indispensable. And Julian Joseph – as compere, composer, pianist, conductor, bandleader – made the vast workload  he had shouldered look light.

What I’d heard beforehand, that writer Mike Phillips had uprooted the plot of Tristan und Isolde and planted it into 2013, had filled me with some trepidation. The plots of Wagner’s operas on their own don’t necessarily add up to much, except that the characters always seem to bring complicated pasts with them, which need a lot of unravelling and explaining before the action can commence.

The eminent German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who passed away last week,was once asked what he thought of the idea of performing Wagner’s librettos as dramas without the music. His answer was: “For God’s sake, why would you want to increase the number of bad German plays”. And I’m not sure if Phillips’ solution, to superimpose an operatic (synonym preposterous) backstory really works –  yet. A Cornish princess, after Phillips’ uprooting, has become a mixed-race Transylvanian refugee. Maybe there need to be airline-style baggage restrictions per passenger/character in opera…

Nevertheless, the music is of such quality in its deft creation of mood, that, as in Wagner, it carries the day. Incidentally, I couldn’t spot musical/ thematic links to the Wagner’s motif-laden composition. If they are there, they are hidden and certainly weren’t mentioned.

What matters though, is that Joseph’s music does indeed get into the mind. It stays there, and I can prove it: the couple behind me stayed in their seats during the interval, and were happily singing the theme from his composition Doctone, written in memory of Kenny Kirkland, back and forth to each other for a quarter of an hour.

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. Now that sounds interesting!

    Do you know if there are any plans for a radio broadcast? It almost sounds as if designed for Radio 3…

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