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Recordings

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
25 May 2008

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde

In the 1983 production designed, staged, and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, this recording of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a solid and well-thought performance that has much to offer.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

René Kollo, Johanna Meier, Matti Salminen, Hanna Schwarz, Hermann Becht, Robert Schunk, Helmut Pampuch, Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele, Daniel Barenboim (cond.). Staged and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle

Deutsche Grammophon 073 4321 [2DVDs]

$34.99  Click to buy

With some of the finest performers of the time, it is a musically and dramatically strong recording that preserves an impressively effective staging of the work. With modern productions of Wagner’s operas sometimes split between conservatively traditional presentations and sometimes provocative modern ones, Ponnelle’s conception of the work is rooted in the conventional interpretation of the work in a quasi-medieval setting. At the same time, he does not avoid using visual and graphic elements to underscore the staging, as occurs with the almost blinding light at one of the climaxes in the prelude, which transfixes the almost mesmerizing seascape with the slow-moving fog that eventually dominates the stage. The use of fog offers a metaphor for the ambiguity that is essential to the story and Wagner’s libretto, where concepts of love, honor, responsibility, and fate blur to show how those ideas are not always precise and clear.

Like other Bayreuth productions of this opera, it is possible to trace its lineage to the innovative Inszenierung which Alfred Roller brought to that stage, a concept he had introduced in 1903 with Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Hofoper. Roller based his work on the theatrical theories of Adolphe Appia, who emphasized the important of lighting and other details made productions realistic to audience. Innovative in its day of painted flats and static canvases, Roller’s 1903 production brought modern staging techniques to this opera, with light and color characterizing each act. At the same time, Roller did not deny the medieval accoutrements in the details of that production, and neither does Ponnelle. In fact one of the images early in the 1983 production is Isolde in an overly large patterned robe, which resembles one of Gustav Klimt’s paintings, thus calling to mind the fin-de-siècle.

Just as Roller engaged his audiences with three-dimensional objects on stage, the various props in Ponnelle’s production function both as stagecraft and on a symbolic level. In the first act, for example, Isolde touches her crown when the libretto calls for it, she mangles it in anger and creates instead a bowl that anticipates that cup she would share with Tristan. That vessel later becomes the means for reflecting light back into the faces of the lovers to give their images a kind of magical glow. For an opera in which the image of light figures prominently, especially in the second scene of Act Two, lighting is an essential part of any production, and it makes Ponnelle’s staging stand apart from others. These and other elements in Ponnelle’s staging demonstrate the depth of his work in making this 1983 production of Tristan und Isolde memorable.

The performers are matched well, and offer fine readings of this familiar opera. As Isolde Johann Meier introduced a fine, almost personal intensity to the music, and Hanna Schwarz, who was relatively new to the stage, brought freshness to the role of Brangäne. A youthful and hopeful Brangäne makes some of the suggestions in the text seem natural and yet her voice has a fitting and resonant depth. The two work well together in the first two acts, with Meier’s ecstatic singing taking its naturally dominant role. The famous Liebestod is exceptional in this performance, in which Meier owns the stage, both visually and musically, and it is fortunate to have her Isolde captured in film and now released on DVD.

This production also preserves René Kollo’s fine interpretation of Tristan. Kollo’s ringing tones convey the sense of youthfulness and ardor that are necessary for the role and, at the same time, blend well with Meier’s singing. Of particular interest is Tristan’s monologue before Isolde’s arrival in the Third Act, “O diese Sonne,” which shows well Kollo’s involvement with the character and his intensive expression. As to the other characters, all are suited to the roles in this cast from Bayreuth. Schwarz, again, delivered a fine performance as Brangäne, with a deft touch in making her part in the second act serve the libretto well. Hermann Becht is equally effective as Kurwenal, and resembles at times Amfortas in Wagner's Parsifal in his sympathetic approach to the Third Act. Matti Salminen similarly creates a believable König Marke, whose understanding at the climax of the opera balances the passion his character has encountered earlier in the opera.

Barenboim’s interpretation of the score is dynamic in offering a variety of tempos that underscore the text. The finale scene of the first act seems more impetuous than some recordings, which can be overly solemn in the duet that follows the lovers’ reaction to the love potion. The relative briskness has its shortcomings, though, with the choral conclusion a little abrupt and seeming tacked on. Nevertheless, it is that kind energy that makes the opening of the second act memorable in Barenboim’s hands. His command of the orchestra emerges easily in the dynamic levels associated with the hunting horns and other elements that become quite vivid in this performance. Yet nowhere does the sometimes full sound of the orchestra every overbalance the voices. The intensity of sound fits the score well, and does just to the acoustics of the famed hall in which it was recorded, the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth.

The video is conveniently divided between two discs, with the first act on one, the other two acts on the other, and subtitles are available in German, English, French, Spanish, and Chinese. Unlike some DVDs that are issued without a booklet, Deutsche Grammophon wisely included a fine one that helps to guide the viewer through the tracking used on the DVD. The sound itself, is wonderfully resonant, and benefits from the studio-like use of Bayreuth for recording this production. While some might prefer a performance with an actual audience, it is difficult to imagine some of the close-ups and other nuances emerging from such a recording, which might have entailed placing cameras on stage, an awkward element found in recent concert recordings. Rather, this kind recording captures the performance on the stage intended for it, rather than takes the production into a studio, where the result is removed at least a degree away from the source. Those who have limited choices for DVDs of this opera may wish to place this particular recording high on their lists, if not at the top, as a fine production, well sung, and finely played. Anchored solidly in the traditional medieval setting of the opera, any modern innovations with lighting and props on the part of Ponnelle serve to underscore the fine performance that dates from almost a quarter century ago, and those familiar with Barenboim’s recent recordings of Wagner’s operas, including this one, may wish to include this DVD of Tristan und Isolde in their collections. It is a solid production on all parts, and one that demonstrates the enduring quality of the work in the hands of such a fine cast, led by Daniel Barenboim.

James L. Zychowicz

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