Wagner Tristan und Isolde

Two views of a profoundly satisfying, high-profile Tristan

Author: 
John Allison
Wagner Tristan and Isolde, PappanoWagner Tristan and Isolde, Pappano

WAGNER Tristan und Isolde – Pappano

  • Tristan und Isolde

If this is, as predicted, truly the swansong of major studio recording of opera, the genre goes out on an inspirational high. Fifty-three years ago EMI, in the person of Walter Legge, built a recording of the work around Kirsten Flagstad with Furtwängler conducting and a superior cast that has remained a classic ever since. Now Peter Alward, Legge’s successor as EMI impresario – just before he retired from the company – conceived another Tristan around another singer nearing career’s end, again with a notable conductor and cast in support.

In his 60s, Domingo remains a marvel. Indeed, he gives us a performance of Tristan, carefully studied, heroically sung, sympathetically interpreted, that truly crowns his career as a tenor and recording artist. I got even more from his reading than I expected, particularly in Act 3, where his tragic utterance and fearless delivery matches that of his many Otellos. In that he, incidentally, follows in the part two other famous Otellos – Vickers for Karajan on EMI and Vinay for the same conductor at Bayreuth – in terms of searing utterance, but neither of those quite matches Domingo in musical accuracy or vocal consistency. Ludwig Suthaus for Furtwängler is more idiomatic and even more shattering in the role, benefiting from long experience of it on stage, but he is another tradition. Domingo’s reading is, in its own terms, superb.

Even more remarkable is the Isolde of Nina Stemme. As she showed at Glyndebourne a couple of years ago, she offers the most telling Isolde since Nilsson’s at Bayreuth for Böhm; indeed, she need fear comparison with none of her predecessors, such is her command of all aspects of the role. Her strong, dark-hued, vibrant tone allied to her meaningful enunciation of the text is something to wonder at. To near-perfection she is the angry, frustrated woman of Act 1, the besotted lover of Act 2 and the transfigured Isolde of Act 3. Nothing in the long and taxing role escapes her notice, yet the detail is never exposed at the expense of the portrayal as a whole. In particular I was deeply affected by the way she showed Isolde’s emptiness and dreadful sorrow after her lover has died in her arms.

To accompany her as Brangäne, Alward has demonstrated, as he always did, an eye and ear for a distinguished newcomer. Mihoko Fujimura, Bayreuth’s current Fricka and Waltraute, not only has a lovely voice but – like her mistress – never misses a point in the text. Hers is a lighter voice than that of most Brangänes, but is none the worse for that as she floats her warning easily above the lovers in Act 2. This is the work of a thoughtful, well-schooled young artist. Olaf Bär at times sounds overparted as Kurwenal, but we are consoled for some gruff moments by his Lieder singer’s grasp of detail and tonal variation, though Hotter for Karajan in 1952 (Orfeo) remains unapproachable in the role. As one would expect, Pape is a Marke who combines a an unfettered legato in his bel canto delivery with a subtle management of the text, missing only some of the anguish of the king’s betrayal exhibited by Ludwig Weber for Karajan at Bayreuth in 1952 and Martti Talvela for Böhm in the same house in 1966.

There is classy casting of the smaller tenor roles. In the case of the Shepherd, Bostridge is perfect: his gentle, plangent tone is just right for this curious but important role. I am not so happy with Villazon as the Young Sailor: his delivery is too hefty and his German is as awkward as Domingo’s once was.

Over all presides the alert and commanding Pappano. This is not an interpretation in the timeless, deep vein of Furtwängler, more in the dramatic mode of Karajan in 1952 and Böhm. We are here concerned with a living drama, an aching tragedy played and played out through every bar with a pulsating energy tamed by a thoughtful mind. The Covent Garden orchestra’s strings are not quite as opulent as Furtwängler’s Philharmonia or the BPO in Barenboim’s not inconsiderable reading but, as a whole, Pappano’s players are wholehearted supporters of their chief, their contribution reaching a climax in an overwhelming Liebestod.

Nobody is going suddenly to abandon the great recordings already mentioned – certainly not Böhm’s live Bayreuth set – but time has moved on and this one, recorded with the fidelity and breadth of sound we expect from EMI at Abbey Road, now takes its place among the best, introducing listeners to an inspired Isolde and Tristan. Alan Blyth

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 on stage 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 (9/00 and 6/02), the idea of him 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, and it must be hoped he will conduct it at Covent Garden.

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 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.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017