, October 2009
This mostly splendid Blu-ray presentation of the Glyndebourne Festival’s presentation of the piece is historic itself for at least one major reason. Glyndebourne’s founder John Christie first envisioned his British festival as an English version of Wagner’s own Bayreuth Festival. Logistics and a spouse who favored Mozart and Rossini put the kibosh on that plan until Christie’s son expanded the festival, building a new concert hall able to handle the gargantuan musical forces (and frequently sets) needed to properly stage Wagner’s work, and so Tristan und Isolde became the first Wagner opera to actually be staged for the Glyndebourne Festival…Tristan und Isolde is an opera virtually devoid of choral singing, ultimately dependent upon its lead duo for the bulk of its success of failure. Thankfully, this production is superbly sung by Nina Stemme as Isolde and Robert Gambill as Tristan (especially in the Act II love duet, which is achingly lyrical), with able support by Katarina Karneus as Isolde’s handmaiden Brangane. The London Philharmonic does a surprisingly nimble job under the baton of Jiri Belohlavek. Sometimes the English interpretations of Wagner can be too polite, lacking that appetite for the jugular that one can hear in the best recordings with the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics, but there’s little if any restraint here, and that is mostly a good thing. Unfortunately, the orchestra very occasionally overshadows the singing, but that’s about the only complaint from an aural standpoint this Blu-ray presents.
While the staging and direction for television are both well done, Tristan can be an annoyingly static piece at times, and there’s little to allay that problem here. Good multi-camera coverage prevents the going from getting too horribly tedious, even when there’s little if any action happening onstage. There’s also a patently weird stage design that stage director Nikolaus Lehnhoff argues (rather convincingly, actually) serves as both womb and cage for the lovers, but which might remind some viewers of the inside of a Slinky gone horribly awry.
Tristan und Isolde arrives on Blu-ray with an AVC encode and a 1080i presentation that while generally excellent does betray interlacing artifacts occasionally. While a lot of this opera is staged in ceaselessly dark, often beautifully dark blue, backgrounds, the palette pops quite nicely. When Act III moves at least partially to a more brown-white palette, we get more opportunity to see fine detail, which is abundantly present. You can, for example, see the actual fabric pattern on the scrim which hangs behind the womb unit set. There is very occasional aliasing (notice the divining branch carried in at the start of Act III for a good example), and also, perhaps more strangely, very occasionally bizarre cross-hatching patterns show up on faces in extreme close-up. Overall, though, this is a beautifully rendered production, with a lot of precision and detail, benefitting from excellent contrast and black levels and an appealing, if sometimes subdued, color scheme.
Tristan und Isolde features some of Wagner’s most sumptuous, even lascivious, music, and this brilliantly recorded Blu-ray offers two excellent sound mixes, Dolby True HD 2.0 and 5.0. The 2.0 is a rather appealing fold down and at times benefits from the reduced separation in making some of the disparately placed singers easier to hear over the immense orchestra. That said, the 5.0 offers a brilliant recreation of an actual hall ambience, with the orchestra sounding positively luscious throughout all three acts. I was repeatedly impressed not only by the deeply burnished brass sounds but also, perhaps more surprisingly, by the warmth and nuance of the strings. Act III’s string opening is especially notable in this regard. Fidelity is always top notch in this presentation, with a really impressive dynamic range. There are occasional balance issues, but they are fleeting and seem to be more a matter of projection than actual microphone issues.
All of the extras from the previously released SD-DVD version of this title have been ported over, though to Opus Arte’s credit, the featurettes are presented in HD. Aside from an illustrated synopsis and cast gallery, there’s an excellent documentary by Reiner Moritz called “Do I Hear the Light? (56:05), which offers some background not only on the opera itself, but Glyndebourne as well. “On the Set” is a brief (1:01, as in just a bit over a minute) but fascinating multi-screen time lapse look at the building of the womb set. “Trimborn on Tristan” (48:35) is an absolutely fascinating analysis of the opera’s musical language by noted musicologist Richard Trimborn.
Tristan und Isolde may defy cogent analysis, both musically and dramatically. This is a piece that plies the subconscious and works its spell slowly but surely over the course of several hours. There’s not much to see in this production, but that frankly works to the opera’s benefit as it places the main focus squarely where it should be: the incredible music.