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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
An Introduction to… Tristan und Isolde

Background [14:58]
Composition [21:28]
The Opera [43:05]
Written and read by Christopher Cook
Sean Barrett – Richard Wagner
Elaine Claxton – Minna Wagner
Laura Paton – Mathilde Wesendonck
Music from Tristan und Isolde – Naxos 8.660152-54
Wolfgang Millgram – tenor (Tristan)
Lennart Forsen – bass (King Marke)
Hedwig Fassbender – soprano (Isolde)
Gunnar Lundberg – baritone (Kurnwenal)
Melot – tenor (Magnus Kyhle)
Martina Dike – mezzo-soprano (Brangane)
Recording information not disclosed. DDD
NAXOS 8.558195 [79:33]

Naxos has released another in their excellent series of lectures on operas. This time Christopher Cook explains the circumstances of composition and the importance of Wagner’s magnificent opera, Tristan und Isolde. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, he then gives a succinct and interesting synopsis of the plot with short selections of the music used for illustrative purposes throughout.

There is one difference in format for this installation of the Opera Explained series. It includes a good deal of enactment representing the composer and others important to the formation of the opera. These take the form of readings of letters and journal entries from the Wagners and Richard Wagner’s young mistress Mathilde Wesendonck, on whom the part of Isolde was modeled. The voice acting job is a nice touch, bringing the story of the opera’s creation to life.

The creation of the opera actually provides as good a story as the opera’s plot itself. This is a real life soap-opera with the rich and noble behaving very badly. Wagner seduced the wife of his patron while in the initial stages of composing the opera. The twenty minutes discussing the composition does a very nice job of telling the tale and not taking the juice out of the story.

In fact, the story of the opera is so well told, and so interesting, that the plot synopsis is nearly a disappointment. There is the usual attention to detail given to the importance of the work, in this instance showcasing the music that would eventually lead to atonal composition. Additionally the leitmotifs are outlined and performed with the same general excellence that epitomizes most of this series.

The complaint here is not unique in this series either. The musical samples are often so short that, unless the listener has a copy of the opera handy, there will be little other than context that the listener comes away with. While the script used here is able to stand on its own more readily than others in the series, due to the story of Wagner’s affair with Wesendonck, this still can do little other than stand alongside the main work.

That said, this in an excellent primer which accomplishes its goals: making Tristan und Isolde more enjoyable and understandable. There are so many people who would have an interest in opera were it explained to them. This is a very good tool to that end, and in this case is interesting even to those familiar with the music itself. This is an excellent addition to the series.

Patrick Gary 


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