Those of us lucky enough to attend WASO’s concert performance of Tristan und Isolde with principal conductor Asher Fisch at the Perth Concert Hall in August 2018 were blown away by German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin’s musically and dramatically riveting Isolde. She returned last week for this year’s Opera Gala Concert in two performances with the orchestra (once more conducted by Fish) in a program featuring a potpourri of operatic and orchestral excerpts and songs, tracing a somewhat arbitrary (if not unmotivated) line from Beethoven via Wagner to Mahler and Richard Strauss.
Despite a program note detailing the influence of Beethoven on Wagner, and the latter on Mahler and Strauss, the selection seemed motivated more by the elective affinities between conductor and soprano: in particular, Fisch’s interest in German Romantic and post-Romantic music, and Barkmin’s specialisation in complex late-romantic, early-modernist, and contemporary roles, from Wagner and Strauss to Berg, Janáček, Shostakovich, Britten, Birtwistle, and Aribert Reimann.
In this context, opening with Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture followed by Leonora’s Act I aria Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? seemed like something of a concession to WASO subscribers, though Barkmin made a commanding Leonora/Fidelio (looking appropriately androgynous in black trousers and Louise Brooks bob) and had no difficulty navigating Beethoven’s somewhat jerky musical, dramatic, and emotional gear shifts from furious recitative (‘Monster, where are you rushing to?’) to hymn-like adagio (‘Come, Hope, let not the last star of the weary fade!’), to the final galloping allegro con brio (‘I follow an inner call, I will not falter!’). One had the feeling that this was perhaps more Maestro Fisch’s choice than Barkmin’s natural repertoire; and that, given her ferocious vocal and dramatic energy, if she were actually cast as Leonora, she would probably relieve Rocco of the keys, liberate Florestan, and lock Pizarro up in his cell without even bothering to disguise herself as a man.