Wagner's Tristan und Isolde Wagner's Tristan und Isolde

The Gramophone Choice

Plácido Domingo (ten) Tristan Nina Stemme (sop) Isolde Mihoko Fujimura (sop) Brangäne René Pape (bass) King Marke Olaf Bär (bar) Kurwenal Jared Holt (ten) Melot Ian Bostridge (ten) Shepherd Matthew Rose (bar) Helmsman Rolando Villazón (ten) Young Sailor Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Antonio Pappano 

EMI 558006-2 (3h 46’ · DDD · S/T/t) Buy from Amazon

Any major new recording of Tristan und Isolde is a big event, and this is bigger than most. As possibly the last studio recording on such a scale, it carries a weight of expectation, something doubled by an assumption which many never believed they’d hear: Plácido Domingo’s Tristan. Of course, the 60-something tenor could never tackle this role onstage now, but it is not often one hears quite such a fantasy interpretation being realised on disc; even after Domingo’s previous EMI releases of Wagnerian scenes, the idea of his recording this masterpiece in full seemed a little far-fetched. The advantage of the recording studio is that his Tristan never seems to tire and he gives an ardent account, characterised by the almost baritonal warmth of his voice. He may swallow the odd word but this is a committed and communicative performance, and he rises to the heights of Act 3.

Even so, it is the conducting of Antonio Pappano and the Isolde of Nina Stemme that truly put this in the highest league. Right from the start of the Prelude, which sounds languid without being really slow, Pappano draws a performance of glowing warmth. He moulds each detail but is never indulgent, with the result that the long spans all fall naturally into place. There is no need to over-stress Pappano’s Italianate credentials, especially not when he conducts such an idiomatic Wagnerian performance, but they show themselves in the way he brings a bel canto quality to this music. This is a work that may have pushed the boundaries of tonality but it also reaches back to the world in which the composer served his operatic apprenticeship. Pappano’s experience of Tristan in Brussels helps to make this sound like a ‘lived-in’ performance.

Stemme is everything an Isolde needs to be: singing with radiant grandeur, she is rare in being able to sound sensuous even on the high notes. From her exciting first entry, she captures Isolde’s temperament, and her Liebestod is notable for its beauty; her partnership with Domingo makes for a thrilling love duet. It is not often that a Brangäne sounds almost as glamorous but Mihoko Fujimura sings with a warmly focused and even tone. René Pape is a noble and sonorous Marke but Olaf Bär is less distinctive and occasionally woolly as Kurwenal. As for the cameos, Rolando Villazón’s Sailor is much less impressive than Ian Bostridge’s ethereal and alert Shepherd. Even if this is not a recording to knock its legendary predecessors off their pedestals, it is an important addition to the discography and a stunning Tristan on today’s terms. More than that: we’d think ourselves in operatic heaven if a live Tristan came close to this today.


DVD Recommendation

Robert Dean Smith (ten) Tristan Iréne Theorin (sop) Isolde Robert Holl (bass) King Marke Jukka Rasilainen (bar) Kurwenal Ralf Lukas (ten) Melot Michelle Breedt (mez) Brangäne Arnold Bezuyen (ten) Shepherd Martin Snell (bar) Helmsman Clemens Bieber (ten) Young Sailor Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra / Peter Schneider

Stage director Christoph Marthaler

Video director Michael Beyer

Opus Arte DVD OA1033D; Blu-ray OABD7067D 

(4h 49’ · 16:9 · 1080i · PCM stereo & DTS 5.0 · 0) Recorded live 2009. Buy from Amazon

It’s clear from about a minute after the curtain first parts on this Bayreuth Festival production that we are in very assured hands indeed onstage. Over a long period of work at Zürich’s Schauspielhaus, Christoph Marthaler and his designer Anna Viebrock have invented a new aesthetic of ‘modern dress’ representations (often, as here, 1950s) of the great dramas from Aeschylus to Brecht, inevitably set in painstakingly detailed, often shabby, interior mid-European courtyards. On to this design Marthaler grafts an intricate ground production that can be both as ‘naturalistic’ as conventional Chekhov (as here in the Brangäne/Isolde and Tristan/Isolde dialogues of Act 1) or as abstract and unrealistic as the hand-jive dances invented for ensemble work by Peter Sellars (seen here in Kurwenal’s ‘fight’ with Melot in Act 3 and subsequent death).

The employment of the Marthaler/Viebrock aesthetic for Wagner’s Tristan works in a manner that reinvents the wheels of both grand opera and 19th-century stage conventions about sex. For example, there are distinct ‘stand and deliver’ moments – after the potion has taken effect on the lovers in Act 1, in the Act 2 duet, and in Tristan’s death-bed agonies. And growing sexual desire is expressed, 1950s movie-style (think Audrey Hepburn), by the loosening of a tie or a suit jacket, or the seductive removal of a glove, finger by finger. Brilliant, because these ‘stagey’ moments have been bought by Marthaler’s attention to psychological detail. 

As in all great stagings – and this surely is one – a list of unforgettable links between text, music and action soon accumulates. Two such are the shy little grin Isolde gives Tristan when they both realise in Act 1 that they’re still alive and so in love, and the manner in which Marke questions Melot’s boasting account of having delivered apparently concrete evidence of Tristan’s infidelity (‘Tatest du’s? Wirklich?’).

It’s hard to know where to point the awards finger first in such a complete ensemble performance (and the revival director Anna-Sophia Mahler deserves credit too). But Iréne Theorin’s multifaceted Isolde, Jukka Rasilainen’s bullishly not-the-sharpest-tool-in-the-box Kurwenal and Robert Holl’s insanely (or Schopenhauer-ily?) calm Marke have to be mentioned in dispatches. Musically everything is fine under the super-experienced Peter Schneider. The Blu-ray version catches perfectly the sometimes lurid colours and texture of Viebrock’s work on both clothes and setting. Despite the ferocious competition, absolutely unmissable. 

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014