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Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Siegfried Jerusalem (tenor) – Tristan; Matthias Hölle (bass) – König Marke; Waltraud Meier (mezzo) – Isolde; Falk Struckmann (baritone) – Kurwenal; Poul Elming (tenor) – Melot; Ein junger Seemann; Uta Priew (mezzo) – Brangäne; Peter Maus (tenor) – Ein Hirt; Sándor Sólyom-Nagy (baritone) – Ein Steuermann
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuther Festspiele/Daniel Barenboim
Staged by Heiner Müller; Set Design by Erich Wonder; Costume Design by Yohji Yamamoto; Lighting by Manfred Voss
rec. Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 3-9 July 1995
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/16:9; Sound formats: PCM Stereo/DTS 5.1
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00440 073 4439 [2 DVDs: 235:00]
Experience Classicsonline

It must have been Wieland Wagner’s production of Tristan und Isolde in the 1960s that broke new ground for Wagner staging. It had Karl Böhm conducting and Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen as the protagonists. It was devoid of naturalistic props and fanciful ‘historical’ costumes with a peeled-off stage with evocative lighting creating the backdrop against which the slow-moving Handlung (story) unfolds. Folke Abenius and Jan Brazda worked along the same lines when they staged Wagner’s Ring in Stockholm a few years later; another successful recreation of what is after all a world of ideas.

For the present Tristan of 1993 Wolfgang Wagner chose director and radical playwright Heiner Müller with roots in the GDR. Patrice Chéreau, the man behind the famous and controversial Pierre Boulez conducted Bayreuth Ring from 1976, was the intended director. However he backed out, maintaining that ‘Tristan can’t be staged; it’s a radio play’. In close cooperation with set designer Erich Wonder, with whom he had been working before, and Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto he created something stylized and abstract. Only essentials are actually shown. In act I a sunken rectangle symbolises Isolde’s tent, in act II there are rows of breastplates filling the stage, looking initially like the empty seats in a theatre. Lighting is here used evocatively: red and yellow in act I, blue in act II, grey in act III. During the prelude – sensually played with glowing string tone – a decorative, non-figurative painting slowly moves across the screen. Not until the end of the prelude can one dimly discern human figures and the outline of a ship. Everything is blurred, like a dreamscape, beautiful in a distancing way, hypnotic. The great love duet in act II has very little visual action – it’s like a concert performance, which also tallies with Chéreau’s vision of a radio play. As in the new production of Tristan at the Estonian National Opera, which I reviewed for Seen and Heard a couple of months ago, there is also here a kind of alienation between the protagonists. They walk back and forth, eye-contact is limited. In a radio play or a CD recording of the work one can decide for oneself the characters’ facial expressions, movements and create one’s own images, governed by what one hears. In the theatre or in front of the TV screen one has no option. One is overwhelmed by the director’s view and the hypnosis works: one gets involved, embraced even, by the physical presence of the lovers, cool on the surface but glowing underneath. Isolde’s pale face and blood-red lips are explicit – they speak of carnal love.

As with Barenboim’s highly acclaimed Bayreuth Ring this Tristan was filmed and recorded in the opera house, not during actual performances, however, but before the festival and with plenty of opportunities to make corrections or retakes. In a way this is the best of two worlds. What is lacking is the actual thrill in performing before an audience. However for repeated listening and viewing it is a blessing to be spared stage noises. The quality of sound and pictures is superb and one can but wonder why it has been withheld for thirteen years. The answer is presumably that Barenboim recorded the opera on CD at around the same time in Berlin for Teldec with several of the same singers, including Meier, Jerusalem and Struckmann. He would otherwise have been competing with himself to the detriment of sales figures for both sets. I have only heard some bleeding chunks from that Teldec set and from what little I have heard it seems to be basically the same approach – naturally enough, considering the proximity in time. Barenboim’s credentials as a Wagnerian are well known and documented; he has recorded all ten operas in the normal canon. His Ring, whether on CD or DVD, ranks with the best. In this Tristan he steers a kind of ideal middle course between the eager forward-pushing of Böhm (Bayreuth 1966, DG) and Bernstein’s mesmerizing but sometimes almost unbearably drawn out reading (Philips). Barenboim never loses momentum, although he too can slow down considerably when he feels it is dramatically valid. There is stronger theatricality than with Bernstein

When this production was mounted in 1993 all the soloists were making their Bayreuth role debuts and Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier were singing their parts for the first time anywhere. Two years later, when this DVD was filmed, they had achieved complete identification with their roles. The dreamlike atmosphere excludes more overtly expressed emotions but the inner glow – the radio play again! – is truly tangible. Jerusalem, who was a professional bassoon player for several years before he, through a whim of fortune, got the opportunity to stand in for an ailing singer, was in his early career a rather lyrical tenor, singing Tamino among other roles. On his debut recital for CBS (later Sony) he was already an accomplished Lohengrin and Walther von Stolzing. Gradually he expanded his repertoire to the heavier roles. He was Siegfried on Haitink’s EMI Ring around 1990 and also for Barenboim. Even though he never developed a gigantic voice of the Melchior kind or had the penetrating steely top notes of Set Svanholm, he had impressive stamina. What he lacked in volume and brilliance he compensated for with intelligence and sensitivity – features that are much in evidence on this set. Rarely have I heard such nuanced singing in this ‘voice-killer’ role. Where Wagner tries to swamp the poor hero with thick orchestral textures, Jerusalem still carries through – not by pressing the voice, as so many tenors have done with devastating results, but through intelligent projection. He is truly stunning in act III. Even more impressive is Waltraud Meier’s Isolde. Although being a mezzo-soprano she has an expansive upper register and there is no sense of her going beyond her natural limits. It is a glorious voice with true soprano ring. It is a beautiful voice and it is an expressive voice. Besides all this she has the looks to match the beauty of the voice. She caps her performance with a gloriously sung Mild und leise.

The other roles, demanding and important though they are, tend to be subordinated to those of the two lovers, but here they are cast from strength. Uta Priew, whom I once heard as a very good contralto soloist in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the Royal Festival Hall, is a dark and impressive Brangäne. Falk Struckmann a more ordinary Kurwenal. Poul Elming, Barenboim’s Siegmund, is grandiose casting for the young sailor. Matthias Hölle is a black and intense Marke.

I am still under the spell of the Glyndebourne Tristan with Nina Stemme’s marvellous Isolde and Robert Gambill’s manly and well projected Tristan (review). It was a Recording of the Month just a while ago and has all the attributes needed to become a classic version. Now comes this Barenboim-Müller production with an almost diametrically opposed approach. Thus far they are complementary rather than competing. Musically they are on a very high level and which one to prefer is a matter of personal taste. It is too early to know how well this Bayreuth version will stand the test of time but it definitely throws some new light on this captivating tale.

Göran Forsling




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