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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865) [233.00]
René Kollo – Tristan; Gwyneth Jones – Isolde; Hanna Schwarz – Brangäne; Gerd Feldhoff - Kurwenal; Robert Lloyd - King Mark; Peter Edelmann – Melot; Clemens Biber - Young sailor; Uwe Peper – Shepherd; Ivan Sardi - Steersman
Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/Jiři Kout
rec. NHK Hall, Tokyo, Japan, 24, 29 September 1993
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround
Picture Format: 16:9, 1080i
Region: Worldwide
Subtitles: Italian, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Korean
Reviewed in surround
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 108 083 [233.00]

What a relief to view a staging so free of directorial konzept. This rather 1960s production is clear and uncontroversial. It is also well, if not perfectly, sung by Kollo and Jones. The orchestra are predictably excellent and the conductor Jiři Kout does not deserve the booing I believe I heard during the final curtain-calls. He paces this gigantic masterwork such that the playing time is just a few minutes under four hours, quicker than Barenboim, Karajan and Furtwängler who all break the four hour barrier.
The staging of all three acts uses the same basic structure; a long curved runway from back to front of the stage with sufficient space beneath to serve variously as the lower deck of the ship and the entrance to the castle, as well as the garden of Act 2. Lighting and gauzes along with minimal props all help to suggest the various scenes in a semi-realistic but unobtrusive manner. The very opening establishes a key aspect of the production, members of the cast stand around in statuesque poses, and either inwardly contemplate or look into the distance; thus my comment about a 1960s feel to it all. This would not have been out of place at Bayreuth during that decade. The only moments of significant activity are the two brief battles in Acts 2 and 3. The latter was closest to the risible because Melot appeared rather cartoonish; apart from this it all looked appropriately serious.
The singing ranges from excellent to discomforting. René Kollo slowly tires as the performance progresses and by Act 3 he is decidedly wobbly and approximate about pitch. At his best, earlier on, he is wonderful and looks, well, Tristanesque. Gwyneth Jones follows a similar pattern and does sound exhausted, maybe appropriately, by the time the liebestod arrives. She too wobbles and loses pitch accuracy. The pair tend to come in under the note and this gets more obvious as the performance progresses. However, this is a massive work and both singers are so experienced that even singing below their best they are impressive. It would be a stony-hearted viewer who is not moved by the end.
Robert Lloyd's King Mark is much more accurately and powerfully sung, but the role is a great deal shorter. Hanna Schwarz is magnificent in voice and operatic acting as Brangäne and is possibly the best singer in this performance.
Technically the sound of this single Blu-ray disc is very good and the twenty-year-old high-definition recording is pretty good. It lacks the clarity of more recent recordings but it satisfies. The insert has an essay and synopsis plus a list of access points. However, the menu system is the normal inadequate creation leaving one unable to use those points from the main screen. I am sure no one is expected to watch the entire 233 minutes in one sitting so why not have at least three entry points for the acts available without resorting to the player remote and a drop-down menu? The answer is that the finalising of these issues involves an automated system and probably no human intervention. Even if a person is involved they are not opera-goers. The subtitles are very full. Though with reference to the English titles, I am not sure how much help they are during the lengthy Schopenhauerian dissertations that Wagner sets. A considerable amount of this libretto consists of tropes of doubtful logic; but one can turn them off or shut one's eyes. There are mighty bravos accompanying the final credits as various members of cast come front of curtain. What a pity the video director did not match all these cheers with actual curtain-calls. Instead, after a few entries, we get an ecstatic audience cheering an empty stage and an unmoving red curtain; what a pity.
Overall one cannot shake off the feeling that this performance represents a sort of last gasp of Wagnerian traditionalism. After more than three hours of stiff leather jerkins and impressive long robes and dresses I began to yearn for more passion and movement. Wagner's great score needs to boil and be matched by the acting. Staggering around, at which both main protagonists are very good, is no longer enough. Do I detect the need for more of a konzept after all? Oh dear.

Dave Billinge

Masterwork Index: Tristan und Isolde