Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Mahler’s Third Symphony launches Prague Symphony Orchestra's UK tour

The Anvil in Basingstoke was the first location for a strenuous seven-concert UK tour by the Prague Symphony Orchestra - a venue-hopping trip, criss-crossing the country from Hampshire to Wales, with four northern cities and a pit-stop in London spliced between Edinburgh and Nottingham.

From Darkness into Light: Antoine Brumel’s Complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday

As a musicologist, particularly when working in the field of historical documents, one is always hoping to discover that unknown score, letter, household account book - even a shopping list or scribbled memo - which will reveal much about the composition, performance or context of a musical work which might otherwise remain embedded within or behind the inscrutable walls of the past.

Rigoletto past, present and future: a muddled production by Christiane Lutz for Glyndebourne Touring Opera

Charlie Chaplin was a master of slapstick whose rag-to-riches story - from workhouse-resident clog dancer to Hollywood legend with a salary to match his status - was as compelling as the physical comedy that he learned as a member of Fred Karno’s renowned troupe.

Rinaldo Through the Looking-Glass: Glyndebourne Touring Opera in Canterbury

Robert Carsen’s production of Rinaldo, first seen at Glyndebourne in 2011, gives a whole new meaning to the phrases ‘school-boy crush’ and ‘behind the bike-sheds’.

Predatory power and privilege in WNO's Rigoletto at the Birmingham Hippodrome

At a party hosted by a corrupt and dissolute political leader, wealthy patriarchal predators bask in excess, prowling the room on the hunt for female prey who seem all too eager to trade their sexual favours for the promise of power and patronage. ‘Questa o quella?’ the narcissistic host sings, (this one or that one?), indifferent to which woman he will bed that evening, assured of impunity.

Virginie Verrez captivates in WNO's Carmen at the Birmingham Hippodrome

Jo Davies’ new production of Carmen for Welsh National Opera presents not the exotic Orientalism of nineteenth-century France, nor a tale of the racial ‘Other’, feared and fantasised in equal measure by those whose native land she has infiltrated.

Die Zauberflöte brings mixed delights at the Royal Opera House

When did anyone leave a performance of Mozart’s Singspiel without some serious head scratching?

Haydn's La fedeltà premiata impresses at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama

‘Exit, pursued by an octopus.’ The London Underground insignia in the centre of the curtain-drop at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Silk Street Theatre, advised patrons arriving for the performance of Joseph Haydn’s La fedeltà premiata (Fidelity Rewarded, 1780) that their Tube journey had terminated in ‘Arcadia’ - though this was not the pastoral idyll of Polixenes’ Bohemia but a parody of paradise more notable for its amatory anarchy than any utopian harmony.

Van Zweden conducts an unforgettable Walküre at the Concertgebouw

When native son Jaap van Zweden conducts in Amsterdam the house sells out in advance and expectations are high. Last Saturday, he returned to conduct another Wagner opera in the NTR ZaterdagMatinee series. The Concertgebouw audience was already cheering the maestro loudly before anyone had played a single note. By the end of this concert version of Die Walküre, the promise implicit in the enthusiastic greeting had been fulfilled. This second installment of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung was truly memorable, and not just because of Van Zweden’s imprint.

Purcell for our time: Gabrieli Consort & Players at St John's Smith Square

Passing the competing Union and EU flags on College Green beside the Palace of Westminster on my way to St John’s Smith Square, where Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort & Players were to perform Henry Purcell’s 1691 'dramatic opera' King Arthur, the parallels between England now and England then were all too evident.

The Dallas Opera Cockerel: It’s All Golden

I greatly enjoyed the premiere of The Dallas Opera’s co-production with Santa Fe Opera of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel when it debuted at the latter in the summer festival of 2018.

Luisa Miller at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its second production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago is featuring Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller.

Philip Glass: Music with Changing Parts - European premiere of revised version

Philip Glass has described Music with Changing Parts as a transitional work, its composition falling between earlier pieces like Music in Fifths and Music in Contrary Motion (both written in 1969), Music in Twelve Parts (1971-4) and the opera Einstein on the Beach (1975). Transition might really mean aberrant or from no-man’s land, because performances of it have become rare since the very early 1980s (though it was heard in London in 2005).

Time and Space: Songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams

New from Albion, Time and Space: Songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams, with Mary Bevan, Roderick Williams, William Vann and Jack Liebeck, highlighting the close personal relationship between the two composers.

Wexford Festival Opera 2019

The 68th Wexford Festival Opera, which runs until Sunday 3rd November, is bringing past, present and future together in ways which suggest that the Festival is in good health, and will both blossom creatively and stay true to its roots in the years ahead.

Cenerentola, jazzed to the max

Seattle Opera’s current staging of Cenerentola is mostly fun to watch. It is also a great example of how trying too hard to inflate a smallish work to fill a huge auditorium can make fun seem more like work.

Bottesini’s Alì Babà Keeps Them Laughing

On Friday evening October 25, 2019, Opera Southwest opened its 47th season with composer Giovanni Bottesini and librettist Emilio Taddei’s Alì Babà in a version reconstructed from the original manuscript score by Conductor Anthony Barrese.

Ovid and Klopstock clash in Jurowski’s Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’

There were two works on this London Philharmonic Orchestra programme given by Vladimir Jurowski – Colin Matthews’s Metamorphosis and Gustav Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’. The way Jurowski played it, however, one might have been forgiven for thinking we were listening to a new work by Mahler, something which may not have been lost on those of us who recalled that Matthews had collaborated with Deryck Cooke on the completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus: English National Opera

‘All opera is Orpheus,’ Adorno once declared - although, typically, what he meant by that was rather more complicated than mere quotation would suggest. Perhaps, in some sense, all music in the Western tradition is too - again, so long as we take care, as Harrison Birtwistle always has, never to confuse starkness with over-simplification.

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera rolled out the first installment of its new Mozart/DaPonte trilogy, a handsome Nozze, by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh to lively if mixed result.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

C Major 746034 [Blu-Ray]
11 Mar 2019

Leonard Bernstein: Tristan und Isolde in Munich on Blu-ray

Although Birgit Nilsson, one of the great Isolde’s, wrote with evident fondness – and some wit – of Leonard Bernstein in her autobiography – “unfortunately, he burned the candles at both ends” – their paths rarely crossed musically. There’s a live Fidelio from March 1970, done in Italy, but almost nothing else is preserved on disc.

Tristan - Peter Hofmann, Isolde - Hildegard Behrens, Brangäne - Yvonne Minton, Kurwenal - Bernd Weikl, König Marke - Hans Sotin, Chor und Sinfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

NTSC, PCM Stereo - region Code A,B and C. Running time: 291 minutes.

Recorded live at Herkulessaal, Munich - 13th January, 27th April, 10th November 1981.

A review by Marc Bridle

C Major 746034 [Blu-Ray]

£30.61  Click to buy

For two of the last century’s greatest artists that they shouldn’t have collaborated more often is perhaps unusual – though Bernstein didn’t conduct opera as often as he might have. Bernstein’s own ambivalence towards Wagner – “I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees” – meant he would never conduct at Bayreuth either, even though he had suggested that he would indeed lead a new production of Tristan und Isolde there in 1972 (that never materialised, and Carlos Kleiber conducted the next Bayreuth Tristan in 1974).

Bernstein would conduct Tristan und Isolde, of course, in Munich. That performance, recorded live an act at a time over several months, would unlikely have been to Nilsson’s tastes. Indeed, in the over three decades since it was made this is a recording of Tristan that has sharply divided critical opinion – and continues to do so. For some, the extremely slow tempi, especially for the first two acts, which are among the longest on record, make this performance dramatically weak, even incoherent; for others, that very slowness reveals power and sumptuousness in equal measure. It begins with a Prelude of astonishing breadth – but Bernstein’s is by no means as unique as one might think. Fritz Reiner, in a live performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the 1957/58 season of concerts, is as breathtakingly expansive as Bernstein is. What both Bernstein and Reiner amply demonstrate – where a conductor like Carlos Kleiber sometimes doesn’t – is that this music is organic; the pauses and bar rests are part of the music, not distinctly separate from it. When Karl Böhm commented that Bernstein dared to conduct Tristan as Wagner wrote it he wasn’t being altogether facetious, nor uncomplimentary – though Böhm rarely took his own advice. The one compelling reason to listen to Bernstein’s performance is almost symmetrically similar to the reason why one should listen to Toscanini’s 1930’s Wagner: What might be excessive control of the music to some ears, is revelatory to others.

This is not to say that Bernstein’s Tristan is not beset by problems because it obviously is. The major disadvantage is that this is not a single performance of the opera. It doesn’t lack drama – far from it – but it’s drama that’s not consistent with our assumptions about opera in the theatre. An audio recording by itself can rarely give us a picture of a live event; film, on the other hand, is entirely impressionistic. If some find Bernstein’s Tristan antithetical to this opera’s drama and intensity there’s more than enough ammunition here to help justify those claims. Compare it to, for example, the great Böhm/Nilsson/Vickers Tristan from Orange in 1973 and Bernstein’s Tristan can be seen as an exercise in stasis: The singers rarely move, there is no staging to speak of; the music and the voices build everything into an evolving drama. And the orchestra is the fulcrum from which almost everything is built up. In one sense, this is a Tristan - semi-staged, though even that is a generous description – that alludes to the theatricality of some Pinter or Beckett; it’s microscopic, even absurdly, interventionist in an opera that ideally requires the opposite.

The film of this Tristan is revealing in one sense in that it lets us see the conductor – and Bernstein looks on the verge of a nervous breakdown after Act I – but in no sense does this at all seem obvious from the Philips audio recording. The physical exhaustion is so palpable it now perhaps seems inevitable the opera was performed this way. But when you listen to Act I Bernstein’s symphonic way with the score, with swelling and wildly vivid chords, with waves of sound almost breaching the limits of Wagner’s scoring, the scale seems more imposing than usual, too. Bernstein’s Tristan is rather similar to standing in front of Gericault’s Raft of Medusa at The Louvre: A shipwreck of a performance almost certainly, but you’re drawn into its psychological and disturbing complexities in the way that great visual art often engulfs you. It’s little more than an exercise in power, however: This is the art of control, deliberately indulgent as no other performance of Tristan is.

One of the glories of these concerts was the translucent, and languid, playing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I think it’s always seemed unlikely that such disciplined, detailed and unfailingly beautiful playing could have ever been achieved from either an orchestra pit, or over the period of a single performance. Bernstein’s attention to detail is microscopic – the phrasing is often so precise, the bar rests so eternal, the emphasis on sound so important that this Tristan is often pulled in two distinct, and opposing, directions. The passion that Bernstein gets is so symphonic that he’s forgotten about the voices.

And those voices are not at all even. Hildegard Behrens’s Isolde is on the light side, more fragrant and fragile than one would ideally like. The voice rather lacks backbone, notably in the bottom register, but it’s a good match for her Tristan, sung by Peter Hofmann. Behrens would, in a few years or so, become a fine Isolde – but here she is rather constrained by the slowness of the music to give us an Isolde that is dreamy rather than dramatic, reflective rather than vituperative. Hofmann’s Tristan was never comparable to the best on record, or in the opera house – and he doesn’t really, unlike his Isolde, seem to benefit from the single-act concept; indeed, one might argue he’s actually hindered by it, especially in Act III. Hofmann never really feels a convincing Tristan because the scope of Tristan’s full tragedy is rarely allowed to develop. True, there are no wiry moments, no rough edges to Hofmann’s Tristan – though his tone, rather than feeling refreshed between each act struggles to achieve any depth. His long monologues in Act III are often uneven, and there is little in the sense of molten intensity. Bernstein picks up speed in Act III – a notably faceless prelude beginning it – but even so when Behrens and Hofmann sing together, such as in the Liebesnacht, the effect really isn’t as intended.

There are some advantages from a sound perspective to this Blu-ray version of Tristan und Isolde. The Philips CDs emphasise the orchestral balance in the BRSO’s favour even more starkly than is the case here. If the audio of the performances suggest that Bernstein had immersed his singers under great waves of sound, the film somewhat corrects that impression. It’s entirely possible what Philips were doing with their sound editing was inserting dramatic effect to counter-balance the neutrality of Bernstein’s dreamier approach to the score. But this filtering was often unevenly done. The Act III prelude, for example, is extremely lightweight, as is Isolde’s Liebestod which just sounds thin and strained - but, on the other hand, the endings to Act I and Act II are thundered out with such force they sound like sledgehammers by comparison. The sound on film is much more natural – though, of course, it does nothing to improve the deficiencies of the performance itself.

This is unquestionably an important document of Bernstein’s legacy as an opera conductor, though it’s inevitably a deeply flawed one. If there is one reason to buy the Blu-ray of this performance it’s that the shift in sound perspective gives us a quite different view of these concerts. Visually, it’s not especially interesting to look at – it’s as static as the performance is through its long stretches. I’ve always loved this Tristan for the playing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and that will never change – this is a near flawless orchestral performance, one of depth and sumptuousness that is unrivalled elsewhere, even by Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic or Kleiber’s Dresden Staatskapelle. The impact they have on film is remarkable – and this is probably as close as Bernstein intended it to sound. It’s magnificent but frustrating in equal measure.

Marc Bridle

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):