The full launch of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 2012/13 season is still a couple of weeks away (scheduled for 22nd March), but it was a pleasant surprise yesterday afternoon when an e-mail arrived from the BBC SSO announcing what seems likely to be the biggest highlight (or, if it isn't, part of a very exciting season indeed).
Concert opera is a cornerstone of Runnicles' relationship with the orchestra, indeed it is how they first came together, for a performance of the Berlioz's Les Toyens way back in 2001 at the Edinburgh festival. Since he became chief conductor it has featured in their regular season too: in 2010 they opened their season with the first act Die Walkure and last November we were treated to Runnicles' own arrangement/abridgement of Der Rosenkavalier. Next season they go one better, bringing us the whole of Tristan und Isolde, in part to mark Wagner's bicentenary in 2013.
There is, it must be noted, a slight catch. Presumably in part for economic and logistical reasons, it is not a single concert performance, but rather will be spread over three with one act each in September, November and April. This formula has worked well for Runnicles before, with similar arrangements providing the basis for his recording of the work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Christine Brewer in 2002/3 (review here). And, indeed, it makes for three blockbuster concerts rather than just one.
A slightly bigger gripe concerns the fact that the cast will not be constant throughout. Though we are treated to Nina Stemme for acts one and two (and having heard her sing it, a treat it should most certainly be), her place is taken by Petra Maria Schnitzer for the last act (a quick google isn't too promising, but she has sung the role with Runnicles in Berlin). Then again, act three does bring us the King Mark of Matthew Best, whom Edinburgh audiences will surely remember fondly from his performance as Wotan in Scottish Opera's Ring cycle (act two's Mark is Peter Rose). Rose, along with act one's Kurwenal (Boaz Daniel), is veteran from Runnicles' recording, Boaz in particular gave a memorable account on that occasion. Tristan is sung by Ian Storey in acts one and two, with Robert Dean Smith taking over in act three.
The concerts pair an act of Wagner with Rachmaninov's The Isle of the Dead, exerts from Berlioz's Roméo and Juliette, and in the final concert Strauss's Metamorphosen. All three concerts will take place both in Glasgow and Edinburgh and presumably this will be the whole Edinburgh season for the orchestra. In a change from the last few seasons, they are trying an earlier start time of 4pm on Sunday. Whether this will lure a bigger audience is uncertain, but the Usher Hall has been bafflingly empty on Sunday nights. If people miss these, more fool them. In addition, the orchestra, is bringing pre concert talks to Edinburgh, in the same manner as they already do in Glasgow. There is no sign of the post concert codas, but I'm not sure you'd want anything else after an act of Tristan (well, save one or two more).
Conductor and orchestra will be there throughout, and that should mean a treat. Runnicles is a fine Wagnerian, as evidenced both by that concert Die Walkure and also by the fine reading of Der Ring I saw him direct in Berlin two years ago (and, hopefully, as he will show again when he conducts Lohengrin on our next visit there this spring). The man himself had this to say:
“These concerts bring the orchestra and I back to the roots of our relationship together, in 2001, in concert performances of opera. That was when I fell in love with this orchestra - the musicians were so extraordinary and enthusiastic that I have been genuinely impatient for many years to bring this Tristan project to Scotland.”
When I interviewed Runnicles back in 2010, I asked him about concert opera. In addition to mentioning the slightly different perspective a symphony orchestra brings, and indeed that the listener hears the opera differently compared to the experience in an opera house, he did say that I could expect more concert opera. Perhaps he was referring to this.