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Recordings

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
10 Dec 2005

A Time of Tristans

We live in a time of Tristan & Isolde — recordings of the great Wagner opera, that is.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Placido Domingo, Nina Stemme, Mihoko Fugimura, Olaf Bär, René Papé, Ian Bostridge, Jared Holt, Matthew Rose, Rolando Villazón, Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano (cond.)

EMI Classics 7243 5 58006 2 6 [3CDs]

$43.23  Click to buy

Over the recent period, EMI Classics have issued the much noted “final studio opera recording” (probably not true), of Tristan conducted by Anthony Pappano with Placido Domingo and Nina Stemme in the title roles, chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Shortly before this issue, Deutsche Grammophon released a Wiener Staatsoper-produced recording of T&I taken from live performances in May of 2003, conducted by Christian Thielemann, with Thomas Moser and Deborah Voigt in the lead roles, and broadcast on Austrian Radio. Pappano’s London studio effort dates from sessions of November 2004 and January 2005.

A third fairly recent Tristan is said by informed sources to be coming from Warner Classics, that being from BBC broadcasts of several years ago, featuring John Treleaven and Christine Brewer in the title roles, Donald Runnicles conducting forces at the Barbican Center, London — essentially for radio broadcast, one act over each of three occasions. Warner is expected to issue this in 2006.

A curious coincidence among these three recordings is they feature several major performers’ first efforts in the monumental Wagnerian romantic roles. Vienna was hearing Voigt’s first Isolde and Moser’s first Tristan; London was hearing Brewer’s first Isolde and the EMI CDs present Domingo’s first and probably only Tristan, a role he has not sung live and at this point in his career, presumably will not. The Metropolitan Opera currently has scheduled Voigt’s first New York Isoldes in 2006, and San Francisco Opera will present Brewer’s first fully staged Isolde in Autumn 2006. I’ll mention the obvious: it is quite unusual for a singer to record his or her very first experience with such stellar parts and it is risky to do so, as comparisons are bound to be made with subsequent performances that benefit from further study and experience. Brewer, for example, was still reading her role from a score when her broadcast recording was made.

We cannot review the BBC/Brewer recording since it is not yet officially issued, but I have heard test discs from the BBC Barbican broadcasts and they represent a remarkable vocalization of Isolde by debutante Brewer, most likely the best equipped soprano in vocal terms of any essaying the role at present. Runnicles is a capable Wagner conductor and Treleaven a competent English tenor, not usually associated, however, with heroic repertory. More on that recording when it is in hand.

I see that Opera Today has not reviewed the Thielemann issue, and I cannot here, save for a few words of comparison to the Pappano/Domingo recording, the real subject of this article. In sum, I was pleasantly surprised by both Pappano and Domingo in their collaboration on Wagner for EMI microphones. Their studio Tristan is a true ‘performance,’ with cogency, its own style, much beautiful, precise orchestral sound and individual instrumental playing, and mainly adequate or better singing.

Domingo is the reason this recording exists and he sings with warm tone, dramatic conviction and good energy. He is obviously not a stage Tristan — but he’s a good one here. I agree with many, that his German vowels are sometimes not idiomatic, yet he generally sounds comfortable in the language and the value of his distinctive, mellifluous tone is beyond price. How many tenors have we suffered through ‘barking’ this part — too many! Domingo sings it, sometimes a bit flat out, but honorably. He is well partnered by the young Swedish soprano Nina Stemme who brings many strengths to her Isolde. She sang the part at Glyndebourne and she is assured in her work. I feel she is a bit over-parted, especially in the long sustained narrative passages of Act I, when the upper mid-range voice can turn a bit cloudy under pressure; however when it’s time for climactic highs she has them. She also has good German and strong emotional command of the Irish princess’s moods and passions. Mihoko Fujimura, the mezzo soprano Brangane, is of Japanese origin, but spent years training in European houses and has sung Wagner widely, including at Bayreuth. The voice can turn a shade hooty when pressured, but her over all contribution is valid, and more. All principals are tested by the big duet scene of Act II — but the virtue of studio production is proven: however many retakes later, the result is satisfactory.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the EMI Tristan und Isolde is the orchestra, its sound and conductor. The wide dynamics and colors of Wagner’s rich score are beautifully captured; the English musicians out-do themselves in instrumental perfection, and the American-born Tony Pappano has his point-of-view with this music.

It is often very slow, especially in the opening pages of the prelude and in other mainly orchestral passages; how long can you draw it out before it breaks? This is the kind of thing James Levine does with aplomb in Wagner performances at the Met, but the post-modern approach to molecularizing scores is not to everyone’s taste. One has to be patient with this and wait for the resolution; ultimately it comes, and as Act I ended I felt I had heard a true performance and a good one. Tristan abounds in unresolved longing, in prolonged and sustained mood, all intended to heighten the effect of final resolution when at last it comes. Brian Magee in his brilliant study, The Tristan Chord, makes it clear that “the music is the drama” for Wagner — and indeed so. Just how much one cares to play the waiting game is a matter of personal taste.

I would, however, refer readers to Thielemann’s live-in-theatre performance on DGG to catch a better whiff of the real temporal dynamics in Wagner’s theatrical score. No matter how much Magee and, perhaps Pappano might argue their case, T&I is a theatre piece, and it has to live in theatre time. I suppose it’s a lot easier to sizzle in the opera house than in the studio. But I am happy to put Pappano’s recording beside those in my library of von Karajan, Böhm and Levine. Vienna’s lead singers do not provide the interest of Domingo and Stemme. Voigt’s Isolde was a work in progress in May 2003, and she was not in best form. Her top notes here are bight and reliable; alas, the working voice, the all-important middle range, can go into and out of tune, and often does. If I am not mistaken, the Vienna performances were shortly before Voigt’s much publicized bariatric surgery, a situation from which she has only recently emerged with a less than satisfactorily supported voice — so far. One grows bored with her flatting and fudging in all but the topmost register. Voigt has always shown best in the high-flying Richard Strauss parts, always had to compromise a bit with the lower-ranging Wagner parts she has sung. This Isolde is no exception, only here the under pitched, slightly uncomfortable tones are inscribed for posterity. Is Isolde really a role for Voigt? Thomas Moser’s first Tristan shows a voice in tune, of good power and range — with no particular color or interest. I don’t know where a good Tristan is nowadays. Let’s wait for a listen to Brewer and Treleaven. (Meanwhile Melchior and Flagstad are out there on CD.)

Not to slight secondary singers in the Pappano recording, for Rene Pape as King Mark is vocally beautiful and touching, while EMI has rather shamelessly cast “name” artists in two lesser parts, Rolando Villazon as the young sailor, Ian Bostridge as a shepherd, to no special effect. Olaf Bar is Kurwenal, Jared Holt is Melot, and Matthew Rose is the steersman — all competent.

J. A. Van Sant © 2005
Santa Fe, New Mexico

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