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Richard WAGNER
Tristan und Isolde
Tristan: Jon Fredric West, ten.
Isolde: Waltraud Meier, sop.
Brangäne: Mariana Lipovsek, ms.
King Marke: Kurt Moll, bass
Kurwenal: Bernd Weikl, bar.
Melot: Claes H. Ahnsio, bar.
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Conductor: Zubin Mehta
Stage Director: Peter Konwitschny
Stage and Costume Design: Johannes Leiacker
ARTHAUS 100 056
(2 DVDs) [241.00].
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While the major labels dither and hesitate about converting their many videos to DVD format, one new label, Arthaus, is making a major place for themselves on store shelves. They have issued a flood of new releases, mostly of recent performances of the opera repertory. This Tristan und Isolde was recorded from the 1998 Munich Opera Festival and, while the Birgit Nilssons and von Karajans for the time being must wait in the wings, this performance moves to the front ranking of those currently available on DVD. Featuring a fine cast and a remarkable stage production, it is a valuable record of an important performance.

It is blessed with the two lovers sung by about the best voices available on opera stages today. Waltraud Meier makes a major impression as a lithe and attractive Isolde. Perhaps the most attractive woman ever to sing this Wagnerian heroine, she is an important asset for a visual representation such as this. She has a firm grasp on the role and its difficulties and delivers the vocal lines with power and passion. She became famous singing mezzo roles but occasionally takes on the soprano repertory and was a splendid and sexy Kundry in the video of the Metropolitan Opera's Parsifal from 1993. A superb singing actress, she shows no signs that the range of this role was difficult or uncomfortable for her. Her 'Liebestod' was delivered to a single camera, close up, and was a daring and impressive visual and vocal accomplishment.

The contributions of the Tristan, Jon Fredric West, a native of the American mid-West, were a bit less effective but significant nevertheless. He is one of the few tenors brave enough to take on this notoriously voice-taxing role. Even the amply gifted Ben Heppner has not indicated that he will sing Tristan again. Possessing a strong - if a bit dry sounding - tenor voice, West is certainly in the Heldentenor class and makes a major impression. Sometimes, during those many orchestration-rich moments in this music, he showed signs of strain and can be heard resorting to that time-honored tradition of the Wagnerian bark. But there are many moments where he sings with power and commitment and his long Third Act almost-monologue showed a fine talent for acting and vocal characterization. The one irritating habit of his was to keep his eyes firmly fixed on the conductor and, during the love scene close-ups, this was most apparent. His Isolde was not similarly encumbered and somehow always managed to be on the beat.

The Kurwenal of Bernd Weikl is a record of his unfortunate current vocal decline, with strain and off-pitch delivery the distressing features of his role. The grand bass, Kurt Moll, 4 years older than Weikl, sings with the force and feeling of a much younger man and brings such abilities to the role of King Marke that his scenes are filled with intense emotion. Marjana Lipovsek was a sturdy Brangäne and Claes Ahnsjo was an appropriately evil Melot. Zubin Mehta, Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera, conducted his forces with sensitivity and force. While not destined to be one of the great Wagnerians, he has slowed and broadened his conducting style in his later years and this allows this music the necessary breathing space in which to flower.

Peter Konwitschny, an aging 'enfant terrible' of the European opera stages, has irritated audiences, and this writer, more than once with his concept productions. This, however, is one of his most successful works and it is a clear and powerful dramatization of this story. Starting the tale on the fantail of a post-modern designed ship, the staging and direction is innovative and invariably visually compelling. Ideas are fresh but always relate to the music drama and this works well in this new media. It has a 16:9 screen format and subtitles available in French, German, English and Dutch. With interesting visual treatment and much fine singing, it is recommended.

Frank Cadenhead

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