Tristan und Isolde
Jones, Schwarz; Kollo, Feldhoff, Lloyd, Edelman; Orchestra and Chorus of Deutsche Oper Berlin, Kout. Production: Friedrich. Arthaus Musik 108083 (Blu-ray) or 102317 (DVD), 233 mins., subtitled
This 1993 Tristan is marked by solid professionalism. It features a cast of veteran Wagnerians, all performing with consummate authority. Götz Friedrich's production offers a solid, straightforward take on the opera; the forces of Deutsche Oper Berlin, on tour in Tokyo, perform expertly under the sure baton of Jiří Kout. It would be easy to regard this performance as simply a display of sturdy competence, but ultimately it becomes something more: its seriousness of approach allows Tristan itself to emerge in its transcendent glory.
Friedrich had a reputation as an iconoclast, but his take on Tristan is essentially traditional. Günther Schneider-Siemssen's set design, mixing representational elements with neo-Bayreuth abstraction, is thoroughly mainstream, and not dissimilar to his work at the Met on the 1971 August Everding production. The only real moment of revisionism comes when the hunting party disrupts the lovers: floodlights pierce the stage, and Melot enters in a storm-trooper's coat — anachronisms that tell us the idyll has truly been shattered. Elsewhere, the staging is marked by its restraint, especially during the great duet, when the lovers stay fixed in place: Friedrich seems to understand that no stage business could possibly enhance the overwhelming drama created by the music itself. (The performance takes the traditional "big cut" in Act II between Tristan's entrance and the Liebesnacht — a mercy for the singers and, arguably, the audience.)
By 1993, the stars of this performance, René Kollo and Gwyneth Jones, were both nearing the end of their many years in Wagner; their singing here displays the wear and tear of their long experience, along with the wisdom gained in the process. Even though Kollo's tone had coarsened over the decades, one can still hear his lyric-tenor roots, along with the metal that allowed him to tackle the heldentenor repertory. His work is strong, if somewhat stolid, in the first two acts. But his Act III is a revelation, with the mammoth back-to-back monologues delivered with unflagging energy, intensity and stamina. True, he can't summon Melchior-like honey at the end of the marathon for "Wie sie selig." Nonetheless, his epic reading of the scene brings Wagner's drama to vivid, searing light.
I witnessed Jones's Isolde at the Met in 1981 — a portrayal so vocally chaotic that I swore never again to attend one of her performances and pigheadedly stuck to my vow. Her work on this video makes me regret my intransigence. The air-raid-siren wobble that could invade her sustained tones is only marginally present here. Her lower range tends to be dry and unresponsive, but the sound in the upper reaches increases in luster as the performance proceeds. Jones's indistinct treatment of the text makes her paint in broad strokes; the role emerges in great whooshes of dramatic-soprano sound. But this is a rapt, committed portrayal, with singing on a scale to match Wagner's intentions.
Hanna Schwarz, utterly idiomatic, is the Brangäne, her portrayal marred only by unsteadiness during the Watch. Gerd Feldhoff's sound can get gruff under pressure, but he is an achingly sympathetic Kurwenal. The superlative Marke is Robert Lloyd, focused in voice and in artistic intention.
The video is presented in wide-screen 16:9 format, though I suspect it was originally taped in the then-standard ratio of 4:3 (it pops up that way in some YouTube excerpts), then cropped for this release. Perhaps this is why the image looks so washed out, even on Blu-ray. (It would also explain why Tristan's head drops out of the frame at the moment of his death.) The sound, though, is top-notch, giving a real sense of Kout's splendid reading. The work's big moments register with terrific impact, but the conductor binds them into the great span of Wagner's musical argument. Even as a home-viewing experience, the performance feels like an immense journey, and at its end, the Liebestod unfolds with truly cathartic effect — a tribute to the performers and director, but most of all to Wagner's extraordinary imagination.
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