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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Nina Stemme (sop) ... Isolde
Plácido Domingo (ten) ... Tristan
Mihoko Fujimora (mezzo) ... Brangäne
René Pape (bass) ... King Marke
Olaf Bär (bar) ... Kurwenal
Jared Holt (ten) ... Melot
Ian Bostridge (ten) ... Shepherd
Rolando Villazón (ten) ... Young Sailor
Matthew Rose (bar) ... Steersman
Royal Opera House Chorus, Covent Garden
Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden/Antonio Pappano
rec. Nov 2004–Jan 2005, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road Studios, London. DDD
Plus bonus DVD
EMI CLASSICS 558006-2 [3 CDs: 78:57 + 73:54 + 73:38 = 227:00]

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Any new recording of Tristan und Isolde – especially a studio made one – has to make some exceptional claim on the listener’s attention to warrant comparison with the great performances of the past. Fortunately, this new recording does exactly that; in almost every respect (and most notably one) it is a formidable achievement. For many, the main interest of this set will be in Plácido Domingo’s Tristan and for a singer who was 63 when he went into the studio to set down this most heroic of tenor roles his singing is indeed remarkable. Do not expect to hear Domingo attempt to equal the likes of Jon Vickers or Windgassen because he doesn’t, but there are moments when he is simply stunning. At the end of his long Act III monologue, "verflucht sei, fluchtbarer Trank!/Verflucht, wer dich gebraut!" (the end of track 6, disc 3), he is totally believable as an accursed and desperate man. It is one of many moments where Domingo shades his Tristan with a mortality and humanity that is breathtaking. That this Tristan is also more lyrical than usual adds a warmth to the phrasing that subverts the occasional toughness and wiriness that other singers (Vickers, especially) have brought to Tristan in the past. This works wonderfully in the Act II love duets with Isolde (their first duet "O sink’ hernieder" is as seductive as any on record); it is less convincing in Act III where Tristan’s madness needs rather more colour in the voice than Domingo is sometimes willing to acknowledge; and at times it is sometimes difficult to distinguish Domingo’s voice from that of his Kurwenal, Olaf Bär. But even here, Domingo has some surprises in store. At "Kurwenal, siehst du es nicht" (end of track 5, disc 3) Domingo summons up enormous reserves of vocal power to counter Pappano’s swelling orchestral intensity. Domingo, moreover, does seem more willing than many Heldentenors to evoke a sense of dreaminess – as opposed to pure delirium - to Tristan’s hallucinatory rantings. If Domingo’s tones are not quite as burnished as some they do not diminish the effect of this most human and humane of performances.

His Isolde, the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, whom I rather disliked in the role at Glyndebourne some years back, has grown into the role magnificently. As with her current Bayreuth Isolde, this is a voice that has both youthfulness and a self-evidently taut vibrato. Yet, she can be piercing where needed, especially in Act II where she sings with a range and accuracy that contrasts effortlessly with the gloominess and high drama of her Act I curse. Bill Kenny, reviewing her Isolde at Royal Swedish Opera in March 2004, described her voice as being "lyrical and powerful, completely free from strain throughout its entire compass and her acting is both subtle and persuasive". All of this comes through on this recording, and she and Domingo make a formidable pair with the range of their emotions emerging with not just great clarity but also humanistic detail; listen to them together in Act I, track 10, 2’00 to 4’21 and both singers achieve quite wonderful symmetry of passion. On first hearing, though, some may be slightly disappointed with her Liebestod which at times seems to be something of a struggle for her given Pappano’s overwhelming orchestral domination. Diction certainly seems somewhat rushed at times, but the crystalline beauty of her top notes is fantastically assured, even against the orchestra’s electrifying playing.

As with its two leads the rest of the opera is cast from strength, extravagantly so in the case of the small roles of the Shepherd (Ian Bostridge), the Steersman (Matthew Rose) and the Young Sailor (Rolando Villazón). As with a remarkable Act II of Tristan done at Lucerne last year, René Pape sings an utterly convincing and noble King Marke, one which is both mesmerizing and in which Pape gives an example of disciplined legato phrasing that is unrivalled among singers of the role today. The way he shades his voice to reflect the playing of the bass clarinet in his plaintive tribute to Tristan’s former love (Act II), or with the ’cellos and the violins in his tribute to Isolde (again Act II), convey a very private sense of inwardness. Mihoko Fujimora is a languid Brangäne, but one who is also capable of getting beneath the notes she is singing. There is a certain fallibility to her tone, which works well with her characterization of Brangäne as a clear subservient of Isolde, but at the same time there is also a sense of awe in her steady voice which works to good effect. Jarod Holt takes his biggest role on disc to date (as Melot) and he is growing into a wonderfully assured singer.

One of the problems with all recordings of Tristan und Isolde is that none are absolutely ideal, and this recording is not an exception to that, outstanding though it is. What Domingo and Stemme bring to the roles of the lovers is something very much of our time (Domingo particularly has no obvious predecessor) but even if one does warm to their impassioned and lyrical singing of their roles one always looks for just that something extra. Just as Nilsson could be somewhat cold in her assumption of the role of Isolde, and Vickers somewhat overly-subjective, so Domingo and Stemme lack a complete apotheosis of what these complex roles demand. Stemme has one advantage over Domingo in that she has sung the role on stage, yet Domingo’s forty years on the opera stage, and the last fifteen or so in Wagner, especially as Siegmund, bear uncommon fruit. He is undoubtedly inside the role of Tristan and uses his voice to both sensuous and cathartic effect. There is no question that his Tristan is a unique and compelling performance.

Yet, the single most impressive contribution to this recording is by the conductor and orchestra, and it is this which makes the set so indispensable. Antonio Pappano has sometimes been accused of lacking the ‘Wagnerian line’, notably in his recent performances of Die Walküre. Yet, this Tristan is stunningly conducted and played. Swift as it is, with no cuts, what emerges is a performance of natural pacing, one which gives the illusion of being longer and broader than its timings suggest. Orchestrally, it comes closest to the recordings of Leonard Bernstein with the Bavarian State Orchestra (1983) and Herbert von Karajan with the Berliner Philharmoniker (1971-2), both of whom treat this opera as an incandescently scored symphonic music drama. Pappano is quicker than either, though he emphatically misses none of the detail the score throws up. His Act I Prelude, for example, clocks in at 11’45 (Karajan takes 12’32 and Bernstein 13’58) yet the detail is wonderfully drawn: tempi are articulated as Wagner directs, with no sudden rush in stringendo towards the Prelude’s central climax, and the all-important timpani and the underlying bass line are beautifully drawn out as they should be, but which so rarely happens. Hear Pappano at the Prelude’s central apotheosis (disc 1, track 1, 7’32 to 8’25) and you are listening to one of the great performances of this music. But, if Pappano encourages his singers towards an elemental, intuitive lyricism, he is not necessarily kind to them (as Goodall invariably could be). Pappano takes a volcanic view of the score; climaxes thunder and rage like in few other recordings, and in this his recording owes most to Karajan’s studio performance. His singers struggle, and EMI have not, as they did for Karajan, made too many allowances for this. After the lovers have drunk their potion Pappano encourages his orchestra to soar above them with a lushness that almost suggests the dreaminess of a drug. In Act II, both Domingo and Stemme are consumed by a plushness of orchestral sonority that almost suffocates them. Unlike Vickers, who for Karajan fought back against the formidable onslaught of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Domingo is sometimes swamped by the Covent Garden forces. Yet, where Karajan saw beauty only in the orchestral playing of the Liebesnacht in Act II, Pappano sees the orchestra as an extension of the libretto and as such offers a near ideal balance between the eroticism of the voices and the orchestra. Act III opens with one of the darkest and most spectacularly despondent performances of the Prelude I have heard. The sense of desolation is palpable, and Pappano treats the long cor anglais solo which follows it as a single human voice. Throughout Act III Pappano elicits power surges from the orchestra that are overwhelming: Isolde’s arrival is a real climax, for example, and during the Liebestod he evokes elemental drama and passion.

None of this would be possible without the magnificent playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; on this form the greatest opera house orchestra in the world. Surprisingly few studio recordings of Tristan use opera house orchestras (Goodall’s is the most notable exception), and yet the advantages of using them are so obvious when one hears a truly great performance of this opera. Playing with an uncanny ability to listen to each other, the Covent Garden orchestra are like instrumental voices permeating the vocal transfiguration. A solo cello (disc 1, track 3, 1’41, for example) has a ‘voice’ one simply does not experience with a symphony orchestra. Similarly, in Act II Pappano deliberately evokes individual oboe solos to conjure the image of Isolde during the first duo; it’s radiance is utterly human. With dynamics taken as widely as possible the sheer beauty of this recording becomes self-recommending.

Whatever the shortcomings of this recording - and they are far fewer than on many rival performances - there is no question that this is an important and compelling performance of Tristan und Isolde. If, as rumour has it, this will be the last studio recording of a major opera, then EMI have ended the history of studio opera on a very high note indeed.


The bonus DVD contains the complete opera in 5.1 Surround Sound audio and an on-screen libretto in German, with English and French subtitles.

Running time of the DVD is 227 minutes.

Marc Bridle

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