This DVD is the result of two initiatives that have done a vast
amount to open up the Bayreuth Festival in recent years. Firstly
it is a record of a live big-screen
relay to a crowd outside the theatre, similar to the Royal Opera House’s
British equivalents. Sponsored by Siemens, we get an insight into the workings
of the technical aspects in a “Making of” documentary as an extra.
Secondly it is released by Opus Arte who have entered into an arrangement with
Bayreuth to record and release a number of their performances in coming years.
Thielemann’s new Ring
is the other current example. We can debate
the ins and outs of how “great” the Bayreuth experience still is
these days, but we have to welcome more releases from what is still probably
the finest place on earth to hear Wagner’s works performed.
Let’s begin where we should: the musical performance. Talk of a decline
in Bayreuth’s recent standards can largely be put aside with this Tristan
delivers some of the finest singing in the lead roles that I have heard recently.
Theorin’s Isolde is passionate and all-consuming. The voice can be shrill
at times, but she deploys that to devastating effect during the venom of the
first act: the curse is a real climax, after which comes almost total collapse.
She has all the range and character of a great Isolde, with passionate singing
and absolute confidence within the tessitura. Furthermore, her articulation of
the words really enriches the role, particularly in the Liebestod which fades
away to a breathtaking pianissimo. Her voice can sound a little cold in the great
Act 2 duet, but for me this only enhanced the erotic effect of the music itself.
As for her partner, too often the critics have damned Robert Dean Smith with
faint praise, but for me his Tristan is the genuine article. The voice may lack
the final degree of Heldentenor heft in the first two acts, but he more than
compensates for this in an electrifying account of Act 3 where the delirium seems
almost palpable. He immerses himself in the role utterly and achieves some remarkable
feats of singing while still lying horizontal on Tristan’s bed! Elsewhere
the voice is beautiful and even light, adding airiness and character to a role
which can sound much too heavy in the wrong hands. I found him very moving. Michelle
Breedt’s Brangäne can be shrill and rather irritating at times, but
I couldn’t make up my mind if this was Breedt’s fault or that of
the acting required by the production. Jukka Rasilainen’s Kurwenal is dependable
but little else: he sounds pedestrian and even uninvolved in Act I, but he comes
close to evoking sympathy in Act 3. Robert Holl is a first rate Marke. The voice
lacks nothing in strength, booming with power in the lower registers while managing
subtlety and vulnerability in conveying the old King’s pain. Smaller parts
are well taken, but it is especially good to have Clemens Bieber as the young
sailor at the opening of Act I.
The orchestra and acoustic sound very good, though Schneider’s conducting
is variable. His account of the prelude was bitty and sporadic, breaking up any
sense of Wagnerian line or continuity so that the engulfing power of the music
is entirely lost. However he improves as the night goes on and by the end of
the evening the musical narrative is utterly compelling. Sound is excellent,
captured in crisp 5.1 surround, and the picture is as clear as any I have seen
on an opera DVD, a tribute to the team who captured it.
This being Bayreuth one would expect a somewhat avant-garde approach to the staging
and it’s certainly different, something you could figure out from the primary
colour costumes on the DVD cover. Christoph Marthaler sets the action on a decaying
ship and with each act we descend further into the bowels of the mouldering vessel.
The first act feels like an old people’s home, a waiting room for death,
and the cast dress in a manner that reinforces this. The bright yellows and blues
of the second act stand in marked contrast to the characters’ longing for
night, while the final act is set in what feels like a post-nuclear cellar. Marthaler’s
idea seems to be that the characters’ longing for death is all-consuming
and that any attempt at coming to terms with the physical world is futile, hence
Tristan and Isolde gaze out into the audience during the Liebesnacht, all but
ignoring one another. Reality proves inadequate to the depth of their passion,
or so we are supposed to believe. I actually found it quite dull in places: after
the love potion the characters just look bored, and during the love duet they
appear merely distracted, though the third act does have undeniable power. All
in all I found watching the whole thing rather depressing, but that’s not
an invalid reading of Wagner’s great score and you’ll probably find
something here to match your view of Tristan
, whatever that is.
see also reviews by Jim Pritchard of this DVD and
Masterwork Index: Tristan and Isolde