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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde, Opera in Three Acts [180:59]
Andreas Schager (Tristan),
Rachel Nicholls (Isolde),
Michelle Breedt (Brangäne)
John Relyea (King Mark),
Brett Polegato (Kurwenal),
Andrew Rees (Melot),
Orchestra and Choir of Teatro Opera of Rome/Daniele Gatti,
Director Pierre Audi, Sets and Costumes Christof Hetzer.
rec. live, 2016, Teatro Opera Rome
Picture: NTSC 16:9. Sound: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1, Reviewed in surround sound.
C MAJOR 752208 DVD [3 discs: 239 mins]

Pierre Audi’s production of Tristan und Isolde, offers a mostly abstract conception of the work. As is common in modern productions, there is little in the setting of the medieval origins of the tale, or the places in which the three acts take place. The sets are dominated by a large central flat dark rectangle, variously deployed but never representational. Thus in Act 1 it splits into sections, which never suggest a ship. In Act 3 it ensures the stage stays dark while Tristan complains of the burning sun, symbol of the hated day. That third act also hosts an elevated bier, complete with mummy, beneath which Tristan dies. In fact the final body count is one higher than required by the libretto, as Kurvenal slays Brangäne as well as Melot. Behind the rectangle there is blue background against which various shadowy figures are silhouetted. Although effective at times, such minimal staging, and the pervading dark, become wearisome on screen for a four hour work. The costumes are mostly of the vaguely contemporary or atemporal variety seen only on operatic stages, and in the last act have come mismatched from an assortment of charity shops.

The booklet tells us that Pierre Audi sees the relationship of Tristan and Isolde as “not about a physical connection but a spiritual one”. Hence the writer goes on to reveal that “the protagonists never touched each other once onstage.” The performance, or at least the one that we see on film, shows us that this is not strictly true. But the notion of an abstract form of love is certainly what we get, and the lovers do not, in the passage in their Act 2 love duet where they sing of the prospect of endless night, “embrace passionately” as indicated in the libretto, but remain metres apart and hardly even look at each other. It’s a valid view of the opera of course, and hardly a new one, that it is in some senses a religious work, concerned with transfiguration beyond the earthly realm. But then there is also the curiously symmetrical dramaturgy of the work, each of the three acts concerned for much of its length with one or two characters only, but then suddenly populated with onlookers, most of them with not that much to do or say, just for its last minutes. Audi has no more idea what to do with all this than most directors, but at least he keeps the numbers down, and in background silhouettes, which does help. The Liebestod is very well staged too, with Isolde also in such a deep silhouette haloed in white light that we can’t see her face, suggesting her individuality has now dissolved away, transfigured by love at last.

Andreas Schager makes a dependable Tristan, who has the notes and power for this demanding role. He lacks tonal variety however, and seems to operate in terms of dynamics around mezzoforte to forte, even when the scores says piano – but to correct that he needs the orchestra and conductor to collaborate with him. Rachel Nicholls as Isolde is vocally secure and pure of tone, with less vibrato than we usually hear in a big Wagner role. She can soar above the orchestra in her (many) big moments, too. The Brangäne of Michelle Breedt is a good foil for her, strong and passionate, with a soprano voice not unlike that of her mistress. Brett Polegato makes a sturdy and able Kurwenal, singing with authority especially in the third act. But the vocal honours go to John Relyea’s King Mark, his rich and rounded bass voice allied to the pathos needed for his great lament in Act 2. If he is the one world class singer on display here, then at least there is an even and able team around him.

The Orchestra of Teatro Opera of Rome has not usually been rated as one of the best opera house orchestras but they are excellent throughout, with many a find wind solo, and good balance between sections in tuttis. Daniele Gatti might have encouraged more quiet singing at times, but he is a master of the score, and of the long lines needed to make it cohere over its large musical units. The DVD surround sound is up to C major’s usual very good standard. So a more than respectable Tristan und Isolde overall, if not one to leap to the top of the rankings.

Roy Westbrook

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