Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Tristan: Robert Dean Smith
Marke: Robert Holl
Isolde: Iréne Theorin
Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen
Melot: Ralf Lukas
Brangäne: Michelle Breedt
Junger Seemann: Clemens Bieber
Ein Hirt: Arnold Bezuyen
Ein Steuermann: Martin Snell
Bayreuther Festspiele Chorus/Eberhard Friedrich
Bayreuther Festspiele Orchestra/Peter Schneider
Stage Director: Christoph Marthaler
rec. live, Bayreuth Festival, 9 August 2009.
Special Features: include ‘Kinder, macht was Neues!’ The making of Tristan und Isolde.
Video Tracks: 16:9
Audio Tracks: 5.1 DTS Surround, PCM Stereo
Subtitle Tracks: English, French, German, Spanish
[3DVDs: 292:00]

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 which 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.

For more see Jim Pritchard’s reviews of the same DVD and stage production.

Simon Thompson