07 Sep 2008
WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde
I’ve rarely seen a performance of Tristan und Isolde where I was quite so conscious of the singers’ teeth.
The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal. Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms do occur.
Among the recent recordings of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Valery Gergiev’s release on the LSO Live label is an excellent addition to the discography of this work.
While not unknown, the songs of Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) deserve to be heard more frequently.
Recorded on 5 and 6 May 2008 and 17 and 18 January 2009 at the Lisztzentrum (Raiding, Austria), this recent Bridge release makes available the piano-vocal versions of three song cycles by Gustav Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Rückert-Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder performed by mezzo-soprano Hermine Haselböck, accompanied by Russell Ryan.
Contraltos rarely achieve the acclaim and renown of sopranos. Assigned few leading roles in opera, they are condemned to playing the villain or the grandmother, or to stealing the castrati’s trousers in en travesti roles.
Following their 2011 Decca recording of Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts (1566), I Fagiolini continue their quest to unearth lost treasures of the High Renaissance and early Baroque, with this collection of world-premiere recordings, ‘reconstructions’ and ‘reconstitutions’ of music by Giovanni and Andrea Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Palestrina, and their less well-known compatriots Viadana, Barbarino and Soriano.
Eternal Echoes is an album of khazones [Jewish cantorial music] for cantorial soloist, solo violin and a blended instrumental ensemble comprising a small orchestra and the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony is an outstanding contribution to the composer’s discography.
Oliver Knussen burst into British music with an unprecedented flourish. In 1967, the London Symphony Orchestra premiered Knussen’s First Symphony, with István Kertész scheduled to conduct.
Based on performances given in Summer 2010 at the Lucerne Festival, this recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio is an admirable recording that captures the vitality of the work as conducted by Claudio Abbado.
Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) was one of the most popular composers of his day in Poland, and of the many works he wrote for the stage, two are performed from time to time, Halka (1848) and Strazny dwór [The Haunted Manor] (1865).
The Polish alto Jadwiga Rappé is a familiar voice in various stage and concert works, and the recent release of a selection of songs by Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) is an opportunity to hear her performing artsongs.
Originally released on multiple discs in 1981 this reissue on two CDs is a comprehensive collection of art songs by Italian and French composers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
An exciting contribution to the discography of this popular opera, the live performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome from the Festspielhaus at Baden-Baden is a compelling DVD.
Released in late 2011, Deutsche Grammophon’s DVD of the new staging of Berg’s Lulu at the Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona is an excellent contribution to the discography of this fascinating opera.
A recent release by the Metropolitan Opera, this two-disc set makes available on DVD the famous performance of Berg’s Lulu that was broadcast on 20 December 1980 as part of the PBS series “Live from the Met.”
The novels of Sinclair Lewis once shot across the American literary skies like comets, alarming and fascinating readers of that era, but their tails didn’t extend far behind them.
Once the province of only the most dedicated opera fanatics, mid-20th century recordings of privately taped live performances have become more widely available.
Flute players in opera orchestra around the world must look forward to the frequent appearances of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, knowing that while the stage spotlight in the mad scene will be on the soprano, the orchestral spotlight will be on their instrument.
Since his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1971, conductor James Levine has come to represent the house’s commitment to artistic excellence — reliable, professional, and immaculately presented.
I’ve rarely seen a performance of Tristan und Isolde where I was quite so conscious of the singers’ teeth.
The lovers giving excellent performances are René Kollo and Johanna Meier, and their teeth are not good, but if the production had not been televised (and now presented on DVD, with close-up feature — don’t hit that button) no one would notice or care. Back when Kollo and Meier were trained for the opera stage, photogenic was not quite the requirement it is today, and perhaps we had all better settle down to this new era.
Otherwise, a fine all-around Tristan, the staging informed by Freudian theory. Direction, scenery, costumes are the work of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who has great ideas and not-so-great ideas. His sets are unified by a developing shape: the rising, phallic prow and root-encrusted ship’s cabin of Act I (somewhat disguised by diaphanous sail until the finale) grows into a tree in bountiful bloom in Act II; that in turn becomes the blasted, leafless tree of Act III’s wasteland. The gnarly plot is echoed in all three acts by the gnarl of the growing — or tormented — wood. The lighting of Act II progresses from effulgent garden to the stark black-and-white of torchless night to glowing colored shadows of the Liebesnacht’s supremely erotic climax to harsh, bleached-out concluding scenes. The costumes underscore mood and impulse, the yin-and-yang of it all: Tristan always in black (with a jet black wig) until bloody bandages supersede, Isolde always in white (with a crown full of blossom on which she vents her fury).
Some of Ponnelle’s take may be a bit too focused on tying it all together as ur-myth. We first see Isolde writhing in a smothering cocoon of silken cloak, her head crowned by a flowery basket — is she supposed to be a growing plant or queen of an insect colony? She serves Tristan the potion in a platter rather than a bowl — a saucer of tea? — and when he takes it, demands to share it. They drink from the thing together — which spares us the usual Tristan-rubbing-his-eyes-and-miming-“Wha?,” but on the other hand — have you ever tried to drink two at a time from a small pan? I mean, after the age of six did you ever try this? Did any of the liquid reach anybody’s mouth? The stage picture is interesting (the platter becomes a mirror in which the lovers see, perhaps, their inner selves — making them one doomed psyche: animus combined with anima), but I found it difficult to put the notion of six-year-olds spilling their milk out of my head.
More should be said of the acting because it is so very good, and the singers clearly worked intimately with the director on the details. Meier is not a pretty woman, and Ponnelle has almost emphasized this in Act I, giving her cold, angry, desperate movements while her singing is, frankly, harsh. In Act II we might be seeing (and hearing) a different soprano: long, unbound golden hair softens her profile and her every movement — from the moment she appears, at curtain-rise, almost dancing about the tree with the torch in her hand — is graceful, yearning, lyric eroticism. The voice, too, is softer, sweeter, almost coy — a trick far more famous Isoldes (Nilsson, notably) could not quite pull off. When Tristan finally appears, she is clinging, delirious, beside herself. Some stridency in the higher notes aside, she creates the illusion of an adorable Isolde, and Kollo’s Byronic Tristan matches her, ardent gesture for gesture, with a blank, anguished stare for the act’s end — though he saves the best for his madly capering hallucinations in Act III, which in this version takes place almost entirely in Tristan’s feverish head during the last instant or two of his life.
The entire cast is strong — the reason I would go no farther than “strong” will become clear as soon as the Liebesnacht is over, when Matti Salminen’s King Marke first opens his mouth. At once we are in the Golden Age of Wagner singing, and no one else around is quite up to this standard. Salminen — who sang his farewell to the Met in this part last winter, still sounding wonderful — was something godlike twenty-five years ago. Each note, each phrase is as beautiful as a bass can be, but he goes further, twisting the words, impelling the sadness, the self-disgust, the incomprehension of the man betrayed by everything he has honored and loved. When a Salminen — or a Kurt Moll — or a René Pape — sings Marke, he becomes the center of the opera despite its title; his anguish — how can a moral person betray all the standards of society? — and Wagner’s answer: when overcome by the power of love, makes the work’s philosophic point.
That point is underlined — perhaps to excess — by Ponnelle’s controversial staging of the end of the opera: Tristan, dying from his wounds, in his very last stunned, hallucinatory moments, seems to perceive Isolde emerging from the cleft in the stricken tree (where have we seen that shape before?) to sing her farewell and enlightenment to an immobile Tristan before he slumps to death — whereupon the stage goes dark, to come up on the tableau of the act’s beginning: Shepherd, Kurwenal, Tristan. Did he imagine all the rest of the act in his final instant of life? Is he finding surcease (as the libretto suggests) by accepting death by returning through the very organ that gave him birth? Then what did become of Isolde? Did she and Marke work out their troubled marriage, or did she die herself, as Kurwenal hints? Well, it’s food for thought and the images bring fascinating angles to the story without being either repulsive or ridiculous, as is so often the case with director’s opera in the era since Ponnelle.
Kollo’s sturdy full-throated singing is matched by his enthusiastic delirium as he tears off his bandages, and the blank stare with which he sits through Meier’s radiant final stanzas. Hanna Schwarz, as Brangaene, looks lovely as always but has trouble with the sustained high notes of the warnings, Hermann Becht is the sympathetic Kurwenal, and Helmut Pampuch effective in the greatly elaborated part Ponnelle devised for the Shepherd. After beginning a bit too brightly, hurriedly for my taste, Barenboim leads a winning performance that hits all the marks at the right moment and mood for this staging.
As a production, this must have been a performance to ponder and analyze; as a recording, this is a Tristan Wagnerians will return to, intrigued, and will share with pleasure.