Tristan und Isolde [Import]
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From the Contributor
One of the titles in our catalogue Ilike best is Glyndebourne's production of Tristan und Isolde, because it is so solemnly beautiful, evocative and meditative. Some people might interpret it as 'static' but I love how stage director Nikolaus Lehnhoff approaches Wagner's psycho-erotic masterpiece with a deep emotional and philosophical insight that matches the intense performance of the soloists, and conductor Jirí Belohlavek's remarkable exposure of depths in the score that I have never experienced before.
Their combined efforts and Roland Aeschlimann's universal set design call up classical Greek drama for me, a 'space-time-womb' resembling an amphitheatre. Physical gestures are minimal but not overly stylised, and each movement of a hand, or the turn of a head speaks volumes, as the related emotion floats up from the brilliant orchestra. I think it is a tremendously clever as well as moving achievement, focussing on the deep emotions as pure feelings, and not as predictable bodily or theatrical expressions, which, for me, can quite easily turn into pastiche. Nina Stemme is a beautiful Isolde, in turn fragile and furious, and Robert Gambill's Tristan is superbly lyrical and distant, as if he does not belong in this world. I also love the extra feature in which professor Trimborn gives a personal and direct 'lecture' from the piano on the musicological & philosophical backgrounds of Tristan und Isolde; emphasising the Buddhistic depths and the ideals of 'detachment', explaining why true, untainted earthly love is impossible. All in all, this disc set offers a deeply overwhelming experience every time I watch it.
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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.
The score of Tristan und Isolde has often been called a landmark in the development of Western music. From its opening chord, the famous 'Tristan Chord' f-b-d#-g# which resolves to another dissonant chord, there is a feeling of ambiguous tonality throughout the opera. Techniques used by Wagner were to prove influential in the gradual movement away from tonality that was the hallmark of the 20th Century. Hans von Bulow, who experienced Tristan's creation at close hand, shows how Wagner's contemporaries were aware of the degree to which the opera was the beginning of modern music. In a letter, he wrote 'Nobody had expected Wagner to write such music. It creates a direct connection to late Beethoven .... The musician who still refuses to believe in progress here has no ears!' Every performance of Tristan carries this accumulated historical baggage to some degree.
The 2003 production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff of Tristan und Isolde represents the first introduction of a Wagner opera into the Glyndebourne repertoire. It confronts the historical baggage directly, reducing Tristan's complex web of symbols and meaning into elemental images. The opening act occurs in front of a geometric spiral that represents the womb, a stark clue to the inner-directed and intimate nature of this production. Light and shadow envelop the stage. Settings for the action: ship, garden, castle, are treated as scenic cyphers and are judged as not requiring scenic representation. According to the producer, the setting of the plot is the soul. "The soul's cosmogony can be experienced even before the realities of time and space are neutralised at the opera's end." Tristan is about the conflict between night and meaning. Imprisoned in the dungeon of the world, the only freedom is death. Death is revealed as savior and as love's only safe harbor, and its symbol or sign is night. What passes for life and for meaning is bound to light and the daytime. Tristan occurs somewhere in the interstices between light and darkness. We infer it from Wagner's comments and directions.
This production is brilliant in its simplicity: acting and singing are appropriate in their intimacy, superb in their execution. There are no weak links. Nina Stemme is a wonderful Isolde. Robert Gambill an excellent Tristan. Bo Skovhus as Kurwenal and Rene Pape as King Marke are exemplary. The London Philharmonic play magnificently under Jiri Belohlavek. From top to bottom, this production exhibits intelligence and taste. The Opus Arte presentation is excellent, as well. Six hours of material is spread across three discs. The recording in both PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 surround sound is warmly natural and lifelike, complimenting the production's warmth and intimacy. The enclosed glossy booklet is informative. There are more than two hours of film extras included.
Now my favorite DVD of Tristan, this is a brilliant production that treats its audience with respect. Lovingly produced, it invites repeated viewing as a method of enticing Tristan's meaning from beneath the shroud of darkness. Glyndebourne's inaugural Wagner entry is a profound success. Most strongly recommended.
With this in mind I have to say that this otherwise wonderful performance is cut in the 2nd act. 10 minutes of wonderful music is cut from a performance done in the 21st Century. Incredible, right?
I thought that all the singers, especially Stemme and Pape were wonderful. The sound was good but could be better, not being even in the same league as the wonderful Bayreuth performance with Schneider.
Stemme is such a wonder as Isolde. She projects both strength and power, in addition to beauty and youth, like no one else nowadays. Gambill was quite good and his acting was good. Pape's Marke too was wonderful, so heartfelt and beautiful, like his performance for Levine (but supported by a much better conductor this time around).
Again I wish to stress the fact why I gave it three stars instead of five. The opera is cut. Knowing myself, I wouldn't have bought the Blu-ray if I knew this fact. I find this a serious offense that it warrants the removal of two stars from the rating. If the performance was done of the uncut opera I would have given it five stars. It seems like we still have to look toward Bayreuth to be guaranteed an uncut performance of a Wagner opera.
A demanding work demands performers of the highest calibre. Nina Stemme as Isolde, and Robert Gambill s Tristan, meet the challenge superbly with brilliant performances that reveal all the psychological subtleties of their characters. And although the cast members are all excellent, Katarina Karnéus as Brangäne must also rate a special mention.
For this production, Stage Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff elected to use a simple but exquisite abstract set by Roland Aeschlimann, with its womb-like feel being well-suited to the work. Complimented by subtle but brilliant lighting design, these factors allow the performers to give full expression to this masterpiece. The London Philharmonic rise above themselves, and combined with the Glyndebourne Chorus, respond to every nuance of conductor, Jirí Belohlávek's highly perceptive interpretation.
I have several versions of the work, and I had to discard the Met production for its contrived camera work. No such problems here. Recorded with High Definition digital cameras, the image is very sharp, and camera work and editing have provided the viewer with an excellent perspective of the performance. Sound is simply brilliant. I first had this version on DVD, but it is so close to perfection, that I had to have it on Blu-ray. The DVD was of the highest technical quality, it forebode a wonderful Blu-ray version, and I was not disappointed. Without doubt, this is my number one version of Tristan and Isolde.
Having seen the review claiming this to be significantly cut caused me recently, to do a search. Other performances, Blu-ray or DVD ALL time at around 100 minutes shorter than this version, Now, although unstated, this timing of almost 360 minutes may include the documentary content as well, but although I haven't timed it, I doubt it runs for 100 minutes. The main documentary ony ran for around 15 min., so I am afraid said reviewer is to be frustrated if he thinks he can obtain a "more complete" version. And another note. Anyone familiar with opera performances, knows that cuts are a standard event. The conductor makes these to marry the production with his interpretation. This can vary from the odd bar here and there, to complete scenes. One PS. There is a performance (DVD only) available in Europe that is a little longer than this; and its under Barenboim, a brilliant Wagnerian. However, I didn't look to see how much "documentary" material is included in the "longer version". At its price, I would guess it's not worth the expenditure.
Technical details: 1080i High Definition 16:9 with the option of 2.0 or 5.0 Dolby True HD audio presenting superb sound and just the right balance between singers and orchestra.
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