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Recordings

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
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.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Tristan (René Kollo); Isolde (Johanna Meier); Brangaene (Hanna Schwarz); König Marke (Matti Salminen); Kurwenal (Hermann Becht). Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival conducted by Daniel Barenboim, recorded 1-9 October, 1983. Production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

Deutsche Grammophon 073 4439 [2DVDs]

$31.99  Click to buy

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.

John Yohalem

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