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Video recordings

July 2013

René Kollo (tenor: Tristan), Gwyneth Jones (soprano: Isolde), Hanna Schwarz (mezzo-soprano: Brangaene), Gerd Feldhoff (baritone: Kurwenal), Robert Lloyd (bass: King Marke), Peter Edelmann (baritone: Melot), Clemens Biber (tenor: Young sailor), Uwe Peper (tenor: Shepherd), Ivan Sardi (bass: Steersman), Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin cond. Jiři Kout

rec. NHK Hall, Tokyo, 24 and 29 September 1993

ARTHAUS MUSIK 102 317 [2 DVDs, 84.32 + 148.28]


It is unlikely that there will ever be a totally flawless performance or recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Apart from the fact that the two leading roles are among the most strenuous in the repertoire, any weak link in the rest of the cast or the orchestra will inevitably destroy the illusion that the composer sought to conjure of the overwhelming power of love to conquer even death. Even in the recording studio it is difficult to create this, and on stage it is almost impossible to find two singers who can at the same time be convincing young lovers and yet encompass the sheer physical, musical, emotional and intellectual demands of the music.

The main reason for anyone to invest in this DVD of Tristan und Isolde is also certainly the most controversial one – the assumption of the role of the heroine by Dame Gwyneth Jones. She sang the role many times on stage (including at Bayreuth), but never set it down commercially and so far as I am aware this is the only available recording of her in the part. But it has to be said that her well-known faults are also well in evidence in this performance, made late in her career. The high notes remain true and ringing, and her soft but dramatically inflected singing is as good as ever; but the vibrato when she pushes the tone in her middle register becomes distressing during the Narration, her legato singing in the Love Duet is poorly tuned, and her delivery of her solo after Tristan’s death is unsteady. She is at her worst in the address to ‘Frau Minne’ preceding the extinguishing of the torch, where the sustained notes find her delivery seriously flawed; Rodney Milnes once described her voice in the pages of Opera (discussing a performance of Elektra) as “generous” by which he explained that he meant that she “gave us three notes for every one” (these may not have been his exact words – I don’t have the quote to hand – but the phraseology was something like that). That is cruel as well as slightly unfair – her unsteadiness consists of a coming and going of the tone rather than a movement off the note – but one is sometimes painfully aware here of a voice not always under control. And by no stretch of the imagination can she be seen as a young princess – a “spruce colleen” as the subtitles engagingly describe her – when her elderly husband, despite his make-up, is clearly a good ten years younger than she is.

By her side René Kollo, also in his fifties at the time of this performance, comes out of the performance rather better. He recorded the role in Carlos Kleiber’s studio set, and also for the Bayreuth production by Ponnelle conducted by Daniel Barenboim; but his voice was never really a natural for the part, a lyric tenor pushing his voice rather than a natural heldentenor. In his later years he too developed a wobble that could be distressing, but there is not too much evidence of that here although he sometimes has to deliver some of the more dramatic lines is a sort of Sprechstimme – rather more than a ‘Bayreuth bark’ – in order to get the words across. He too hardly looks young – he gave a much better impression ten years earlier at Bayreuth – but the voice here is still largely intact. Although in the final Act his tendency to fall into Sprechstimme becomes endemic – for example, in his delivery of the line “Wie, hör ich das Licht?” which departs wildly from Wagner’s indicated notation – the dramatic intensity is thrilling.

Also dramatically thrilling is Robert Lloyd as the betrayed husband. He gives his long monologue all the pathos and nobility that the music demands, and generates a real sense of excitement in the closing scenes of the Second Act. The way he reacts with his back to Tristan’s recognition of his treachery is histrionic art of the highest order. Gerd Feldhoff as Kurwenal also is a very good actor, and shades his voice down to the merest whisper at lines such as “Hat dir der Fluch entführt?” He cannot ride the orchestral storm at the climaxes with as much ease as would be ideal, but he is never less than musical. Hanna Schwarz is more predictably excellent as Brangaene, but her delivery of the first line of her offstage Warning displays an unexpected quiver in the voice which suggests that she may not have been able to hear the orchestra clearly (she was better in the earlier Bayreuth DVD). Again she is a good actress, with plenty of sympathy towards her mistress during the First Act. Peter Edelmann is a baritone rather than a tenor Melot, and his higher notes do not sound comfortable. Clemens Biber is a good Seaman in his opening solo, but Uwe Peper unfortunately goes off the note during his short scene with Kurwenal at the beginning of Act Three.

It is usual in reviews to deal with the matter of the staging first, but with this DVD it becomes less significant. The 1980 production by Götz Friedrich is a pretty dour affair, despite some minimal but evocative scenic designs by Günther Schneider-Siemssen. One does not know how much of Friedrich’s original direction remained by the time of this 1993 performance, but for too much of the time there is a serious lack of dramatic involvement by the singers – they simply stand and deliver – and there is also evidence of some routine, as when Isolde reacts to the cries of the sailors (just before Kurwenal’s entrance) before their voices are actually heard. Friedrich is to be commended for his willingness to allow the principals to remain still when there is nothing dramatic for them to do, but some of his directorial decisions seem odd. If Isolde has delivered her Narration in Tristan’s hearing, actually directing her curse to his face, there seems no reason for her afterwards to insist that he should come to see her; and if Kurwenal has had to help Brangaene to separate the lovers at the end of the same Act, why does he then address Tristan with such bombastic indifference half a minute later?

We are used to Friedrich’s habit of staging the preludes to Wagner operas, but the long Prelude to Act One with Isolde sitting impassively onstage does nothing to illuminate the music at this point. He does however appreciate the distinction between night and day which is one of the philosophical ideas underpinning the action, plunging the lovers into darkness immediately after they have drunk the cup which they imagine contains poison – and his production of the long orchestral passage at this point, always a matter of difficulty, has sensitivity and understanding. This makes it all the more reprehensible that he and the conductor connive in the extensive cut in the opening section of the Love Duet, where the lovers discuss the symbolic meanings of light and darkness which underlie the heart of the drama. Possibly it was done to spare the voices of his ageing principals, but it remains anathema nevertheless. Otherwise Friedrich thankfully adheres fairly closely to Wagner’s scenario, and despite the rather barren nature of the production (not helped by the gloomy lighting) it does not misrepresent the composer’s intentions in the way that Ponnelle did at the end of his Bayeuth production – but the sets for the Lehnhoff production at Glyndebourne (like those of Ponnelle) have more sense of sheer beauty, which is after all another one of Wagner’s requirements for this most ecstatic of scores.

The English subtitles, derived from William Mann’s translation originally written for and published by the Friends of Covent Garden in 1968, contain some amusing typographical errors – I noticed “wither” for “whither” and “trough” for “through” – which disturb concentration at just the wrong moments. And the translation itself is at once too literal and too free in tone – “Der Welt-Atems wehendem All” simply does not have the proper transcendent atmosphere when it is rendered as “The cosmic breath’s gusty totality.” The booklet synopsis is rather brisk, concentrating on the stage action rather than the psychological interplay of the drama; it manages to dismiss the whole of Tristan’s ravings in Act Three (lasting over half an hour on stage) in just one sentence: “Tristan’s thoughts turn to all that has happened; suddenly, the shepherd’s joyful melody sounds.” Well, yes; but rather a lot happens before that. The disc comes with no extras.

The conductor, Jiři Kout, is efficient rather than inspired; but he does nothing unmusical or wilful, and the orchestra by and large plays well for him. The audience, quiet as mice while the curtain is up and rapturous in their applause after the end of each Act, are clearly transfixed by the performance. But this DVD is principally of value, as I observed at the outset, for the performance of Gwyneth Jones. She may have been frustratingly uneven as an artist, but her delivery of the climax and the closing bars of the Liebestod, steady and rapt, makes one realise again just how very great a singer she could be when things went right. For a first choice on DVD, provided that one can tolerate the cut in the Love Duet, Nina Stemme’s assumption of the role at Glyndebourne is more reliable. If one insists on having the opera complete, Ponnelle’s beautiful Bayreuth staging is excellent (despite his irritating gloss at the end portraying Isolde’s arrival as the culmination of Tristan’s hallucinations, which becomes more annoying with repetition), although by comparison with that performance Gwyneth Jones knocks spots off the steady but comparatively uninvolved Johanna Meier for the sheer power of her interpretation.


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