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Jerry Floyd
Wagneropera.net, July 2011

Filmed in 2009, Opus Arte’s Tristan und Isolde is the first in a series of Bayreuth Festival performances the label released in a collaborative agreement between the recording company and the festival.

The production, which premiered in 2005, was absent from last year’s festival but is being revived this year with the same cast that appears on Opus Arte’s two-disc DVD.

Seen in its Blu-ray vision, the release has admirable qualities but also demonstrates some very questionable choices by its directors, Christoph Marthaler and revival director Anna-Sophie Mahler.

Technically, the video quality is superior, even better than Opus-Arte’s Glyndebourne Tristan und Isolde DVD.

And there is splendid singing by several principals, especially soprano Iréne Theorin, interviewed by Wagneropera.net’s Per-Erik Skramstad during her 2008 Bayreuth performances as Isolde.

Act I is set in a ship’s lounge with a plethora of chairs. There are too many instances in this act of characters (Kurwenal and Isolde) overturning the chairs to symbolize their anger, a cliché that mars many contemporary opera productions.

But it is nonetheless a gripping act, primarily because of Theorin’s vengeful Isolde. Seldom is this character’s rage as keenly displayed as when Theorin erupts during her Narrative and Curse or when she sarcastically confronts Tristan late in the act. (The camerawork is also particularly inspired during Act I.)

Platitudinous, stoic responses by Tristan, tenor Robert Dean Smith, drive Isolde into even greater fury and during parts of the act she restlessly paces like a caged lioness with a craving for prey.

After the two characters drink the potion, Isolde, thinking she has swallowed poison, checks her pulse. This gesture is one of the production’s most dramatically striking moments. After Tristan and Isolde acknowledge their passion, there is no sign of King Mark and his retinue, who are supposed to enter at the very end of the act.

Act II Artificiality

Act II is supposed to be the acme of operatic passion but in this production the act is mostly a series of muted symbolic gestures that seem artificial and anti-climatic, especially after the opening act’s intensity.

(Although this doesn’t have to be the case, it’s not uncommon for the first act of this opera to dramatically overshadow the rest of the work; this happened in Francesca Zambello’s Tristan und Isolde production, first performed in Seattle in 1998, then in Chicago, where I saw it, and in other productions.)

In Act II of the Bayreuth production, Isolde’s Act I wig of flowing, curly red hair is replaced in by a late 1950s-early 1960s bouffant hairdo and the character is primly costumed to look like Jacqueline Kennedy. She wears a pair of dress gloves which she slowly removes during the Liebesnacht, as Tristan demurely rests his head on Isolde’s lap. Later, Isolde unbuttons her suit jacket and we see part of her slip.

Tristan, however, does not even unbutton his blazer. Given the erotically tinged productions staged in many European opera houses (or the metaphysical eroticism in The Tristan Project film), the enervating action during the love duet in this Bayreuth production seems regressive.

Even in the 1950s men took their coats off while behaving amorously and as I watched Act II, I wished Tristan would pop some Viagra.

Act III Stasis

After fairly realistic stage action during Tristan’s long Act III monologue, this act also devolves into symbols. Although Tristan expires on the floor of a grungy below-decks room, when Melot and Kurwenal die, they continue standing, facing the wall, looking away from the action and the audience. And after they sing their final lines Marke and Brangäne also face the wall.

Isolde is thus symbolically alone when she sings the Liebestod, intoned magnificently by Theorin as she stands in front of Tristan’s gurney. After she sings “höchste Lust”, Isolde lies down on the gurney and covers herself with a sheet to symbolize her death.

The end of the Glynebourne production, where Isolde is gradually enclosed in darkness or the luminous finale of Heiner Müller’s 1990s Bayreuth production are much more dramatically apposite endings to Wagner’s opera of love and transcendence.

Other Artistic Contributions

After being outmatched by Theorin in the first two acts, Smith’s Tristan becomes more compelling in Act III, vocally and dramatically limning Tristan’s torturous ravings during the character’s lengthy monologue. Even though he doesn’t have a heldentenor’s lung power, Smith compensates with nice legato during “Die alte Weise, sagt mir’s wieder” and in other parts of the act. (Since this DVD is a composite performance, it is difficult to assess Smith’s vocal stamina.)

Mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt is an admirable Brangäne, her devotion to her mistress Isolde partly symbolized by the similar wigs the two wear. Kurwenal, Jukka Rasilainen, also defers to his master although his bass-baritone voice sounds a bit grainy.

Bass-baritone Robert Holl’s Marke is now more vocally seasoned than splendid. Four other singers, Ralf Lukas (Melot), Clemens Bieber (Sailor), Martin Snell (Steersman) and Arnold Bezuyen (Shepherd) are assets. However, in the below-the-decks space on a ship, there hardly can be sheep grazing on the hillside, which the shepherd character sings about in Act III.

Peter Schneider is more a workaday than brilliant Wagner conductor so the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra provides sturdy, rather than febrile accompaniment. The male chorus sings their brief passages lustily.



Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, September 2010

Robert Dean Smith...quickly gains a golden radiance that stays with him to the end, with no sense of strain or tiring even in the third act. He’s less heroic, say, than Melchior—but even before he drinks the potion, his repressed passion is palpable, and even at the height of act III, his frenzy never sinks into uncontrolled hysteria. Iréne Theorin is slightly less luminous of voice...but she has a fine sense of phrasing and a good sense of Isolde’s different moods, from the sarcastic sneers of the first act to the transcendent self-abnegation of the Liebestod. Robert Holl is a poignant and sympathetic Marke...Michelle Breedt is an impressively conflicted Brangäne—conflicted in part, it would appear, because of her own erotic longing for Isolde...Peter Schneider conducts with impetus and a strong sense of line—and if he sometimes drowns out the singers, the orchestral balances are excellent throughout.

As for the production: The camerawork is generally excellent, the video quality stunning, and the 5.0 DTS-HD Master Audio sound rich and enveloping, if not quite a match for the 7.1 sound on the Valencia Ring. There’s also a “making of” video



Daniel Albright
Opera Today, August 2010

As the prelude plays, we see circles of fluorescent light moving slowly in uncertain black space. Are we seeing flights of flying saucers, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind?

Are we seeing spots swimming in the lovers’ eyeballs, as ecstasy makes the blood drain from their heads? Are we seeing an abstract kinetic visualization of the music, as in the Bach toccata episode in Disney’s Fantasia? All these things, from the deliriously silly to the deliriously fatal, are relevant to Christoph Marthaler’s bizarre, bizarrely moving Tristan.

The production is more or less modern-day, set in a 1940s or 1950s seedy-plush ocean liner: in each act we move a floor lower, until we’re in the ship’s innards at the end. There are two principal virtues to this updating: first, the actors know how to register emotional shifts delicately and instantly, without thinking to themselves, How does a bloodthirsty Irish princess from the Middle Ages express (say) ironically subdued courtesy?; second, uncanny events register as especially uncanny when transposed into an unmagical world. The fluorescent circles, for example, turn out to be ceiling decorations on the ocean liner; but in the last act, as Tristan’s fever grows, disconnected light-circles, casually slung onto hooks, start, eerily, to glow.

Nietzsche considered that Wagner’s heroines were all modern neurotics, Madame Bovarys; Marthaler goes Nietzsche one better by making the cast into grown-up children improvising various sexy absurdities. When Tristan and Kurwenal sing their nyah-nyah ditty about how Morold’s head is a payment of a toll, they pantomime a patty-cake patty-cake baker’s man game; during the orchestral interlude, as Tristan and Isolde drink the potion and intend to die, Isolde casually checks her own pulse—she is, after all, a physician, and knows how to Play Doctor; during the love duet, when Brangäne sings her aubade, Isolde removes her glove by biting the third finger and pulling it off, a brutal vulgar gesture that undercuts the sober magnificence of the music.

Still, there are ways in which the production is unusually faithful to Wagner’s aesthetic and philosophy. Because the acting is subtly naturalistic—especially the acting of the Isolde, Iréne Theorin—the strange quotation-games in the first act register with a clarity I’ve never seen before. Brangäne quotes Isolde’s “Befehlen liess dem Eigenholde”; Isolde quotes Brangäne’s “für böse Gifte Gegengift”—the characters keep switching lines, for emphasis, or new shading, or mockery. Wagner’s philosopher hero Schopenhauer thought that individuality is a delusion, and that one will gropes through every living thing in the universe—and the easy trading of words and tunes suggests how effortlessly each of us can turn into someone else. These ideas are more familiar in the metaphysically intense undoings of identity in the love duet, but they haunt the whole opera: in the Marthaler production, Isolde begins to sing the “Liebestod” from Tristan’s sickbed, and pulls his sheet over her head as her private shroud or final-act curtain, as if she were turning into his corpse before our eyes.

Theorin’s singing is a bit unsteady, but deep, penetrative, thrilling; Robert Dean Smith is not in her league as an actor, but has a perfectly controlled, slightly sapless voice, always at the exact center of each note—I was slightly reminded of Gunnar Graarud, the light but impressive Tristan in the 1930 Elmendorff recording. For pure excellence of singing, best of all is Michelle Breedt, the phlegmatic but powerful Brangäne. And I mustn’t neglect to mention Jukka Rasilainen’s Kurwenal: almost tenorial, at once puppyish and an endearing coot, the jester at the court of Thanat-Eros.



Jerome R. Sehulster
Stamford Advocate, July 2010

Well, not every one of this summer’s crop is a bel canto opera. The team of director Christoph Marthaler/designer Anna Viebrock transforms Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (2 Blu-ray DVDs; Opus Arte) into a tale of middle-class adultery on a cruise in the mid-20th century. Robert Dean Smith and Irene Theorin, both in fine vocal estate, are the lovers at war with society’s constraints; Marthaler’s direction emphasizes everyday uncertainties, fidgets, and doubts, downplaying grand Wagnerian gestures. Peter Schneider conducts the 2009 Bayreuth Festival.



Andrew Quint
Fanfare, July 2010

 This production of Tristan und Isolde, first seen in 2005 and filmed for this Opus Arte release last summer, initially met with some hostility but has been warmly received in more recent Bayreuth seasons. The Swiss director Christoph Marthaler imagines Tristan as a mid-level functionary in some Western European government c.1960, carrying on with the wife of the head of state. It’s a realization of great subtlety and all the singers give nuanced performances—small gestures and facial expressions mean a lot—and eschew the broad gestures of a big opera house for an acting style suited for film, or the relatively intimate environment of the Festspielhaus. Anna Viebrock, the costume and stage designer, states that she prefers a “unit set” without “constant changes of scenery,” and this production has the look of an old-fashioned TV drama broadcast. One memorable feature is the presence of dozens of round fluorescent bulbs, the sort that were ubiquitous in kitchens in the 1950s, that comment on the lovers’ obsession with light and dark, life and death. They’re the first thing we see in a black firmament during the first act Vorspiel and they are dramatically extinguished overhead when the lovers meet up in the large and unwelcoming meeting hall that’s the setting for act II. The final act finds Tristan in a gritty basement and spare bulbs hanging on the wall flicker along with the protagonist’s dwindling life force.

Robert Dean Smith, this production’s Tristan since it debuted, is very effective even if he doesn’t possess the most muscular and inexhaustible Heldentenor instrument. Smith negotiates the lengthy ardent passages of act II and the tortuous paragraphs of act III with intelligence and a fine sense of musical and dramatic pacing. He seizes on opportunities for lyrical expressiveness. “O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen,” near the end of the second act, reveals his character’s basic decency and sense of personal responsibility; in act III, “Ich war, wo ich von je gewesen, wohin auf je ich geh” (I was where I’d always been and where forever I shall go) is quite moving.

For those who prefer a voice with more of a laser-beam focus for the volatile Irish princess, Iréne Theorin’s soprano may seem too diffuse, her vibrato too coarse. But she plays the part with a spirited, sarcastic combativeness in the first act that’s transformed into a voracious sexuality for the second. I was underwhelmed by Theorin’s Brünnhilde in the otherwise extraordinary Copenhagen Ring (Fanfare 32:3)—her main qualifications for taking on the biggest Wagnerian roles seem to be stamina and power; she’s not that interesting a singer—but at least her acting is better here. Nine Stemme was the Isolde for this production in 2005 and 2006 and it’s too bad one of those performances wasn’t filmed.

Robert Holl’s delivery of Marke’s second-act speech is expressive and heart-rending. Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne is an ideal blend of servant and confidant who’s as devastated by the circumstances as her mistress. Jukka Rasilainen—in a kilt!—portrays a hearty Kurwenal who never seems impatient with his boss’s dumb questions in act III. The smaller roles are executed well and the men of the Bayreuth chorus (never in sight) have been admirably well prepared. Peter Schneider is a superb Wagner conductor who leads with urgency and momentum. The act I Prelude is one of fastest around at a bit over nine minutes, yet Schneider never, ever seems to rush. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra’s playing, as usual, is richly assured.

This is the first Blu-ray disc to originate from Bayreuth and thus the first high-resolution multichannel recording of a performance in the Festspielhaus to be commercially available. I was eager to hear if the recording captured the aural experience of that one-of-a-kind venue. Truth be told, while the surround-sound presentation is spacious and involving, it does not re-create the singular acoustic of the Festspielhaus, the sense of voices and orchestra being present in the same plane and sound palpable all around the listener. Maybe next time: Opus Arte has a long-term arrangement with the Bayreuth Festival to record performances there. The surround option on the DVD release (three discs instead of two, but significantly less expensive) isn’t nearly as good, though the stereo program is identical on both formats. Video-wise, the DVD looks pretty good—until you witness the BD’s vastly superior contrast and detail.

Subtitles are offered in English, French, German, and Spanish. Both DVD and BD hold the same extras—a plot synopsis, cast gallery, and a half-hour feature “Kinder, mach was Neues!” The making of Tristan und Isolde. The latter is one of the best such features I’ve encountered on an opera video, with genuinely interesting insights from musicians and production personnel. This 2009 performance was the second to be streamed simultaneously to a huge screen set up in the Bayreuth Festplatz (Katharina Wagner’s Die Meistersinger was the first, in 2008) and it’s fascinating to hear about the technical challenges of this ambitious undertaking.

The other Tristan currently available on Blu-ray, a 2007 Glyndebourne performance starring Robert Gambill and Nina Stemme, is my favorite video version of the eight I’m familiar with. But for the intriguing production concept—admittedly, it won’t be to everyone’s taste—for Smith’s Tristan, for the conducting and orchestral contribution, and for its aural and visual virtues, Opus Arte’s release can be highly recommended to video-collecting Wagnerians.



Andrew Quint
Fanfare, July 2010

 This production of Tristan und Isolde, first seen in 2005 and filmed for this Opus Arte release last summer, initially met with some hostility but has been warmly received in more recent Bayreuth seasons. The Swiss director Christoph Marthaler imagines Tristan as a mid-level functionary in some Western European government c.1960, carrying on with the wife of the head of state. It’s a realization of great subtlety and all the singers give nuanced performances—small gestures and facial expressions mean a lot—and eschew the broad gestures of a big opera house for an acting style suited for film, or the relatively intimate environment of the Festspielhaus. Anna Viebrock, the costume and stage designer, states that she prefers a “unit set” without “constant changes of scenery,” and this production has the look of an old-fashioned TV drama broadcast. One memorable feature is the presence of dozens of round fluorescent bulbs, the sort that were ubiquitous in kitchens in the 1950s, that comment on the lovers’ obsession with light and dark, life and death. They’re the first thing we see in a black firmament during the first act Vorspiel and they are dramatically extinguished overhead when the lovers meet up in the large and unwelcoming meeting hall that’s the setting for act II. The final act finds Tristan in a gritty basement and spare bulbs hanging on the wall flicker along with the protagonist’s dwindling life force.

Robert Dean Smith, this production’s Tristan since it debuted, is very effective even if he doesn’t possess the most muscular and inexhaustible Heldentenor instrument. Smith negotiates the lengthy ardent passages of act II and the tortuous paragraphs of act III with intelligence and a fine sense of musical and dramatic pacing. He seizes on opportunities for lyrical expressiveness. “O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen,” near the end of the second act, reveals his character’s basic decency and sense of personal responsibility; in act III, “Ich war, wo ich von je gewesen, wohin auf je ich geh” (I was where I’d always been and where forever I shall go) is quite moving.

For those who prefer a voice with more of a laser-beam focus for the volatile Irish princess, Iréne Theorin’s soprano may seem too diffuse, her vibrato too coarse. But she plays the part with a spirited, sarcastic combativeness in the first act that’s transformed into a voracious sexuality for the second. I was underwhelmed by Theorin’s Brünnhilde in the otherwise extraordinary Copenhagen Ring (Fanfare 32:3)—her main qualifications for taking on the biggest Wagnerian roles seem to be stamina and power; she’s not that interesting a singer—but at least her acting is better here. Nine Stemme was the Isolde for this production in 2005 and 2006 and it’s too bad one of those performances wasn’t filmed.

Robert Holl’s delivery of Marke’s second-act speech is expressive and heart-rending. Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne is an ideal blend of servant and confidant who’s as devastated by the circumstances as her mistress. Jukka Rasilainen—in a kilt!—portrays a hearty Kurwenal who never seems impatient with his boss’s dumb questions in act III. The smaller roles are executed well and the men of the Bayreuth chorus (never in sight) have been admirably well prepared. Peter Schneider is a superb Wagner conductor who leads with urgency and momentum. The act I Prelude is one of fastest around at a bit over nine minutes, yet Schneider never, ever seems to rush. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra’s playing, as usual, is richly assured.

This is the first Blu-ray disc to originate from Bayreuth and thus the first high-resolution multichannel recording of a performance in the Festspielhaus to be commercially available. I was eager to hear if the recording captured the aural experience of that one-of-a-kind venue. Truth be told, while the surround-sound presentation is spacious and involving, it does not re-create the singular acoustic of the Festspielhaus, the sense of voices and orchestra being present in the same plane and sound palpable all around the listener. Maybe next time: Opus Arte has a long-term arrangement with the Bayreuth Festival to record performances there. The surround option on the DVD release (three discs instead of two, but significantly less expensive) isn’t nearly as good, though the stereo program is identical on both formats. Video-wise, the DVD looks pretty good—until you witness the BD’s vastly superior contrast and detail.

Subtitles are offered in English, French, German, and Spanish. Both DVD and BD hold the same extras—a plot synopsis, cast gallery, and a half-hour feature “Kinder, mach was Neues!” The making of Tristan und Isolde. The latter is one of the best such features I’ve encountered on an opera video, with genuinely interesting insights from musicians and production personnel. This 2009 performance was the second to be streamed simultaneously to a huge screen set up in the Bayreuth Festplatz (Katharina Wagner’s Die Meistersinger was the first, in 2008) and it’s fascinating to hear about the technical challenges of this ambitious undertaking.

The other Tristan currently available on Blu-ray, a 2007 Glyndebourne performance starring Robert Gambill and Nina Stemme, is my favorite video version of the eight I’m familiar with. But for the intriguing production concept—admittedly, it won’t be to everyone’s taste—for Smith’s Tristan, for the conducting and orchestral contribution, and for its aural and visual virtues, Opus Arte’s release can be highly recommended to video-collecting Wagnerians.




Mike Ashman
Gramophone, May 2010

WAGNER, R.: Tristan und Isolde (Bayreuth Festival, 2009) (NTSC) OA1033D
WAGNER, R.: Tristan und Isolde (Bayreuth Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7067D

A production which references 1950s cinema as much as 19th-century opera

It’s clear from about a minute after the curtain first parts on this Bayreuth Festival production that we are in a very assured hands indeed onstage. Over a long period of work at Zürich’s Schauspielhaus, Christoph Marthaler and Anna Viebrock have invented a new aesthetic of “modern dress” representations (often, as here, 1950s) of the great dramas from Aeschylus to Brecht, inevitably set in painstakingly detailed, often shabby, interior mid-European courtyards. Onto this design Marthaler grafts an intricate ground production that can be both as “naturalistic” as conventional Chekhov (as here in the Brangäne/Isolde and Tristan/Isolde dialogues of Act 1) or as abstract and unrealistic as the hand-jive dances invented for ensemble work by Peter Sellars (seen here in Kurwenal’s “fight” with Melot in Act 3 and subsequent death).

The employment of the Marthaler/Viebrock aesthetic for Wagner’s Tristan works in a manner that reinvents the wheels of both grand opera and 19th-century stage conventions about sex. For example, there are distinct “stand and deliver” moments—after the potion has taken effect on the lovers in Act 1, in the Act 2 duet, and in Tristan’s deathbed agonies. And growing sexual desire is expressed, 1950s movie style (think Audrey Hepburn), by the loosening of a tie or a suit jacket, or the seductive removal of a glove, finger by finger. Brilliant, because these “stagey” moments have been bought by Marthaler’s attention to psychological detail. As in all great stagings—and I have no doubt that this is one—a list of unforgettable links between text, music and action soon accumulates. Two such are the shy little grin Isolde gives Tristan when they both realise in Act 1 that they’re still alive and so in love, and the manner in which Marke questions Melot’s boasting account of having delivered apparently concrete evidence of Tristan’s infidelity (“Tatest du’s? Wirklich?”)

It’s hard to know where to point the awards finger first in such a complete ensemble performance (and the revival director Anna-Sophia Mahler deserves credit too). But Iréne Theorin’s multi-faceted Isolde, Jukka Rasilainen’s bullishly not-the-sharpest-tool-in-the-box Kurwenal and Robert Holl’s insanely (or Schopenhauer-ily?) calm Marke have to be mentioned in dispatches. Musically everything is fine under the super-experienced Peter Schneider. The Blu-ray version catches perfectly the sometimes lurid colours and texture of Viebrock’s work on both clothes and setting. Despite the ferocious competition (see above), absolutely unmissable.






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