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Wagner Tristan C210123
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Tristan: Peter Seiffert (tenor); Isolde: Nina Stemme (soprano); König Marke: Stephen Milling (bass); Kurwenal: Jochen Schmeckenbecher (baritone); Brangäne: Janina Baechle (mezzo-soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. live, June 2013, Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, Austria
No libretto
ORFEO C210123 [3 CDs: 224]

My colleague, Ralph Moore, was very unimpressed with this set when he reviewed it a couple of months ago. He’s right that it isn’t a keeper, but I enjoyed it more than he did.

The principal reason for hearing it is Nina Stemme’s Isolde. By my count this is Stemme’s fourth commercially released account of the role, and it’s fascinating to hear how she has developed in it. The voice, always commanding, is now much more imperious, even forbidding in places. The freshness evident in her studio account with Pappano or the Glyndebourne DVD has been replaced by a tone that is less like a lover and more like an empress, and the tone colour makes Isolde stand apart as a character even more than she usually does. That means this won’t appeal to everyone, and Ralph was put off by a pulse obtruding in Stemme’s voice. It didn’t bother me once I’d tuned into it, though, because Stemme so owns the role of Isolde that she’s always worth hearing. Hers isn’t the white-laser-beam-of-light that you might associate with the Isolde of Birgit Nilsson, her great compatriot, but there is a stately grandeur to it that isn’t a million miles away from the late singing of Kirsten Flagstad. I found her wonderful to listen to, and if you want to hear how her singing of the role has developed then you’ll want to hear this.

Peter Seiffert may no longer be in his prime, but his Tristan is by no means unpleasant to listen to. There is freshness and unassuming directness to his singing of Act 1, and his colour matches Stemme’s very effectively in the love duet. He runs out of juice for the delirium of Act 3, however, and by the curse on the drink he sounds exhausted. That’s not inappropriate for the state the character is in by that point in the drama, but I doubt you’ll want to put up with that when more rewarding portrayals are available elsewhere.

Of the rest of the cast, Stephen Milling’s Marke is the most successful. There is humanity and approachability in this portrayal of the wounded king, and darkness in the voice that fits the character very well. Jochen Schmeckenbecher sings Kurwenal well enough in Act 3, but shouts his way unappealingly through the first Act. Likewise, Janina Baechle’s Brangäne is squally and unattractive; her offstage warnings in Act 2 don’t have anything like the sensual appeal they should.

Orfeo’s recording does this release no favours, either. It’s especially disappointing when they did such a marvellous job with the live Frau Ohne Schatten from the same house, but here the recording is recessed and cloudy, a real shame. The orchestra play the score very well – how could they not at this address? – but Franz Welser-Möst’s interpretation is disappointing. For one thing, it’s much too hurried, so that the love duet and Liebestod sound rushed along rather than revelled in, and things fall apart badly at the end of Act 1, the coordination between pit and stage (and, worse, off-stage chorus) fragmenting dreadfully.

So this isn’t one I’ll be holding onto, but that’s principally because Stemme has done it so well elsewhere. You need to hear her Isolde, but that’s probably best done in her recording with Pappano. If the Tristan of Domingo puts you off then you can hear her in Marek Janowski’s Berlin cycle, though I found his conducting infuriating. Ah, Wagner: with so many variables it’s almost impossible to find a completely satisfying performance of one of his operas; but isn’t that one of the reasons why we keep on coming back to him?

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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