After getting the video of the Ponnelle/Barenboim/Johanna Meier "Tristan und Isolde" which was delisted many years ago, and while I was waiting for it to come out on DVD cleaned up with a better quality of sound, I bought other versions. For my taste, I found them all substandard (see my review of the aforementioned "Tristan"). Then it was issued as a DVD and judging from the many positive reviews most people found it as excellent a production as I did.
Now there is an embarasse de richesse because another excellent production has been released -- different, but equally excellent. The Ponnelle is more traditional, with a major twist to the ending; whereas the Lehnhoff is more stylised, but faithful to the stated intention of Wagner.
There is but one set for the three acts, a series of circular and semicircular steps which enclose the stage. But the very imaginative lighting profoundly changes the space and moods. At times it seems very confining, at others it is liberating; at times dark and brooding, at others warm and optimistic. But the very spareness of the set keeps the focus on the what and why of this powerful opera. It is very imaginative and works very well for this production.
Opus Arte, as usual, has served up a technically superlative production with first rate addenda.
I am grateful to Mike Birman for his account of the background to the opera and this production. It saves me from writing something very similar. (Since both of our reviews were written, we have had a correspondence in the "comment" section as we straightened out our mutual misunderstandings. That remains for those interested. He has since changed a bit of his opening background paragraph, so I am changing my response to it.) I now fully agree with his facts and tone of his account. He wrote, "Tristan is the quintessential opera about eros and it is natural to wonder to what degree these romantic entanglements influenced its genesis". I certainly agree, and would like to add another possible example.
Since I referred to the twist in the Ponnelle production ending, and since other commentators in reviewing that production have given it away, as it were, as well as adversely criticised it I feel free to describe it here. In that version, Isolde does not come to Tristan at the end -- she is an hallucination, Tristan's unfulfilled desire. As I wrote in response to that criticism: "It may be different, but in light of Wagner's life at the time he wrote it, perhaps it makes sense. His relationship with Mathilda Weisendonck had broken up. Many commentators have written that this explains the yearning so powerfully represented in the music. Perhaps subconsciously he never expected that Isolde would turn up. I can invision Ponnelle in Heaven saying to Wagner, as Brunnhilde said to Wotan, "I might not have done what you commanded, but I did what you wanted".
I also have no hesitation in giving this production the full five stars. Where I differ is in a matter of taste. Mr. Birman says that this is his favourite DVD of this opera. (Well, as they say on the Canadian East Coast, "Some likes an apple and some likes an onion".) My favourite DVD production remains the Ponnelle/Bareboim/Johanna Meier one. This, despite my finding Rene Pape's King Marke by far the best I have seen. Stemme, Gambill and Karneus all sing extremely powerfully and well, and their acting is also first rate; but their interpretations are not as emotionally nuanced as those of Meier, Kollo and Schwarz -- hence my preference.
To repeat, it is a matter of personal taste. This is a wonderful production in all respects, and it is really unfair to make comparisons -- not that that has stopped me. I am glad to have both and, unlike all the others I unfortunately purchased over the years, I will return to them both -- often. I am grateful to Opus Arte and DGG for these wonderful interpretations.
PS August 26 2008 I have just seen the Barenboim/Muller Tristan with Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem. As a result, for what it is worth, that is now my second choice and this drops to third. The reason is that I have become increasingly less enchanted by Robert Gambill's singing.