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Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Robert Gambill (tenor) – Tristan; Nina Stemme (soprano) – Isolde; Katarina Karnéus (mezzo) – Brangäne; Bo Skovhus (baritone) – Kurwenal; René Pape (bass) – King Marke; Stephen Gadd (baritone) – Melot; Timothy Robinson (tenor) – Young sailor/Shepherd; Richard Mosley-Evans (bass)
The Glyndebourne Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Bĕlohlávek;
Stage director: Nikolaus Lehnhoff; Set designer: Roland Aeschlmann; Costume designer: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer
Directed for television by Thomas Grimm
rec. live, Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, East Sussex, United Kingdom, 1, 6 August 2007
Audio formats: LPCM Stereo; DTS Digital Surround
Extra features: Illustrated synopsis [7:15], “Do I hear the light?” A film by Reiner E Moritz [56:05], “Trimborn on Tristan” A talk by Richard Trimborn about the musicological and philosophical background on Tristan und Isolde.
OPUS ARTE OA0988D (3 DVDs) [86:29 + 71:24 + 80:38]

Experience Classicsonline


When the overture starts the screen is pitch black with a thin while line in the middle, which slowly grows. After quite some time it is possible to read “Tristan und Isolde”. Nothing else, apart from the text gradually coming even closer. It is like an Ingmar Bergman film. Sparse. The sparsity remains when the drama begins. The sets are stylised. A circular, or rather oval shaped construction with stairs and hidden openings for entrances and exits. Lighting is essential but the simplicity is striking and lends timelessness to the performance. It is no doubt the most beautiful Tristan und Isolde I have seen. The oval construction can be associated with an egg, the origin of all human life; it may even be a vagina. An Ingmar Bergman reference again: Tristan und Isolde is a five-hour-long sexual intercourse. What finally give us some clues as to historical time are the costumes: helmets, togas, coats of mail; and weapons: swords. They establish the period of the original Tristan story.

Everyone who knows this opera and its music also knows that it isn’t exactly filled with action. The plot unfolds slowly, the music is to a large extent slow-moving. We are very much in an inner landscape of feelings and thoughts and the music is hypnotic. Either one capitulates unreservedly and loses all perception of time or one panics and runs away – out into the open for fresh air. Nikolaus Lehnhoff manages to enthral rather than alienate and Jiří Bĕlohlávek draws luminous playing from the LPO. Not once did I question his choice of tempo. With a starry cast that role by role would be hard to beat anywhere in the world this seems like the Tristan und Isolde of one’s dreams.

René Pape is probably the best German speaking bass today with an evenly produced and sonorous voice in the Kurt Moll mould. My only objection is that he sounds too youthful for King Marke, who is supposed to be a very old man. Bo Skovhus, always a splendid actor, is an intense and heroic Kurwenal and Katarina Karnéus is a Brangäne in the Scandinavian tradition - just remember Kerstin Thorborg -  with regal tones.

Tristan and Isolde are two of the most demanding roles in all opera and are often the stumbling-block in most performances. With such a heavy burden there is an impending risk that they will fold up before the last act is over. Robert Gambill was Siegmund on the Naxos recording of Die Walküre - reviewed by me a year and a half ago. He made a decent stab at that role but was a bit uneven. Here he is truly impressive almost to the bitter end. After so many pinched, dry-voiced and barking Heldentenöre it was a relief to hear the role actually sung with sap in the voice and with expressive acting to match. That he began to seem a bit worn in the last act is no wonder and, after all, he is badly injured and weak so he can’t be expected to sound unscathed.

Nina Stemme’s Isolde is already a well known capacity from the EMI recording opposite Domingo a couple of years ago and the question is if she isn’t a notch better here. Like Gambill she sings the role and it is a deeply nuanced reading with beautiful tone and warmth that is rarely heard. This is as close to perfection it is possible to come.

Every Wagner lover should see and hear this set and who knows – even anti-Wagnerians might have to revise their opinions after seeing it.

Göran Forsling 




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