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Paul Pelkonen
Superconductor, May 2012

This three-DVD set…captures Ms. Stemme as Isolde in the Glyndebourne Festival’s first-ever staging of a Wagner opera. Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the London Philharmonic in a sweeping, slow reading of the score that draws out much of Wagner’s musical detail.

Ms Stemme sings the two Act I narratives with power and detail, injecting vivid meaning into each word…

Set designer Roland Aeschlimann creates an abstract space, a large torus that looks like the “Guardian of Forever” on the original Star Trek. All the characters move through this torus which is carefully lit to reflect contrasting moods.

…Robert Gambill is a high-lying heroic tenor who is clearly straining in some of his big moemnts in the first two acts. However, Mr. Gambill saves the best for the torments of Act III, reaching fresh heights of insanity and vocal prowess in Tristan’s self-tormenting monologues. His final outburst at Isolde’s arrival is heart-rending…

The supporting cast is excellent. Bo Skovhus is almost unrecognizable under his helmet, but the baritone makes a characterful Kurwenal with deep feeling for his master. Rene Pape projects sadness and sonority as King Marke…Katarina Karnéus’ Brangäne…delivers a chilling Watch Song in the second act.

Ms. Stemme’s soaring high notes are ably supported by an impressive low range, as her voice rides the waves of orchestration to each of Wagner’s musical climaxes. The final release is exquisite. © 2012 Superconductor Read complete review

Tim Pfaff
Bay Area Reporter, March 2009

I suppose it’s ironic that one of the greatest productions of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—a heterosexual love story even the religious right might applaud for its exploration of the fatal consequences of sexual desire outside, and in fact explicitly in defiance of, marriage—would be by one of the leaders of gay theater and film in Europe. But equally you could say that it’s ironic that the DVD of the opening night of Patrice Chereau’s production of Tristan for La Scala on December 7, 2007, has just been released by Virgin Classics.

But the first apparent irony is as cheap a shot as the second. As every second poster on the streets of San Francisco now proclaims, Love is Love, so the surface heterosexuality of the legend is hardly the point. Then, too, gay men of Chereau’s generation have learned a thing or two about the nexus of love and death that’s at the heart of Wagner’s libretto.

But what’s brilliant about Chereau’s Tristan is precisely that it doesn’t have an agenda beyond doing what any Tristan should: hold you in a vise grip for four and a half hours and leave you shaken to the core. Yes, if you look at the manifesto included with the program notes, you’ll read that Chereau thinks that it’s depression that links Tristan and Isolde in a mutual-suicide pact, but that’s his job as a Frenchman. As director he does the more difficult and important work of telling the story, directly, immediately and compellingly, unencumbered by creed, so that it gets to you on its own terms, as only Tristan can. Then you can decide what it all means, if indeed you have any appetite for that after this shattering piece has had its way with you. It’s adult, life-altering stuff.

Chereau accomplishes the task in a million telling details, mostly looks and glances with startlingly few outsized gestures. Everything tells.

Although there isn’t a missed or even slack moment in the whole opera, Chereau leaves all the competition behind as he wades into the cauldron of Act II without flinching. The long, difficult passage in which Tristan and Isolde talk about how they got to the point we find them, at the deracinated peaks of their obsession—mystical and philosophical one moment, “Look what you did to me” the next—has made translators despair (what does any of this mean?) and lesser productions take the route of least resistance by simply cutting the passage. Chereau makes it an electrifying dialogue.

There’s an entire visual syllabus of touch and embrace—both resisted and surrendered to—over the course of the act. Then, in King Marke’s famous soliloquy at the end of the act, as the king laments the Isolde he never had as a wife, “so splendid, fair and exalted” (one of the saddest and most beautiful lines in all of Wagner), Chereau has him embrace Isolde exactly as Tristan did at the end of the couple’s love duet. You just gasp.

He bends neither text nor music in one of his great innovations, namely, depicting the vassal-friend figures—Isolde’s Brangaene, Marke’s Melot, Tristan’s Kurwenal—as people in well over their heads, loving, if too well, not at all wisely. Brangaene becomes a meddlesome, interfering scold and a frump to boot. Michelle DeYoung, who has sung the role in countless productions, dives into the characterization without inhibition, and has never sounded better or more convincing.

Waltraud Meier, Europe’s leading Isolde for a generation, sings as though her entire life were a preparation for this performance—and that it’s not a performance. The stronger testimony to Chereau’s genius is that Ian Storey, a British tenor singing his first Tristan, performs with comparable depth. The director is hardly the first to put an actor onstage to play the English horn solo in the last act, but this time it’s heart-rending.

This is conductor Daniel Barenboim’s third Tristan on DVD alone, and at this point there is no one better qualified to lead this fathomlessly beautiful and dangerous score. The icing on the cake is that Chereau is working with his designer of choice, Richard Peduzzi, so the stage pictures are as compelling as the dramaturgy and music-making.

The Tristan of another gay director, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, on an Opus Arte DVD made at Glyndebourne a few months before Chereau’s La Scala production, hails from the other end of the Wagner production spectrum. Cool and conceptual, heavy on the symbolism, it all but dares you to get involved emotionally. It has a chaste, frozen beauty that fundamentally misses the point. The concept seems to involve pelts, and the downsides of the fur trade. The good news is that its Isolde, Nine Stemme—the Bruennhilde in waiting in San Francisco Opera’s Ring—is stunning in every way.

American Record Guide, December 2008

This is a performance from the 2007 Glyndebourne festival. It employs singers who are generally satisfactory if not of international fame, and a good orchestra with a conductor who seems not to be highly experienced in operatic repertoire. It was staged by that fellow Nikolaus Lehnhoff, whose earlier stage settings for Parsifal and Lohengrin (also on OpusArte) I found provocative. This one, I have to say, is less effective. All the action takes place in a set having the form of a truncated cone of elliptical cross-section. You observe the inside of this cone—whose nose is cut off—revealing a view of the great beyond through the elliptical hole. A series of steps or platforms have been erected inside, also in the form of elliptical arcs. There the action takes place. Different lighting arrangements simulate day and night, with colors that change as needed.

As in the earlier OpusArte productions, a 50-minute lecture on the psychology of the work and its musical connotations is given, this time by one Richard Trimborn rather than Lehnhoff himself. It is in German, with excellent subtitles, and it is not only easy to follow, but also very interesting and informative. Lehnhoff appears in a second narrative film that deals with the issues of love and death, night and day, fantasy and reality, as well as the Morold-Tantris subplot.

I am quite familiar with this work, have attended many performances, and have reviewed it many times. I know it well, but I still learned quite a lot about it from these 'extras'. I therefore strongly suggest you view them before looking at the opera itself.

My only DVD recording of a complete Tristan was an old 1973 color film of a performance at the Orange Festival, with Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers in the title roles and the French National Orchestra conducted by Karl Böhm. Sounds like a hot combination! Well, it is, but the film isn’t very good, sometimes offering only a dim view of orchestra and conductor—and the camera work is often unsatisfactory. The audio is dim, distant, hazy, and lacking detail.

This Glyndebourne production, superb in every video aspect, with gorgeous color, sharp focus, and first class audio and video from beginning to end beats it to a pulp in almost every way, but it doesn’t have Nilsson or Böhm. Birgit Nilsson was near the end of her career in 1973 and never was a beautiful woman. Her appearance is not pleasing to the eye. Ms Stemme in the OpusArte production is slim and attractive—way better looking than most other Isoldes. She sings the role well, too, though not without visible stress. She never strays off pitch or fails to reach the top notes, but her lower register lacks strength and solidity. Her vibrato is better controlled than is usual these days. It is unfair to compare her to Nilsson, and really there’s nobody around who’s much better, but she does not generate the thrills, the frisson that Nilsson—or Flagstad—did.

Belohlavek surely lacks the command of big and challenging works like Tristan that Böhm exhibits, best revealed in the CD set recorded by DG with Nilsson, Windgassen, and Ludwig at the 1966 Bayreuth Festival. Böhm keeps things moving, particularly in narrative passages designed to inform and educate rather than excite. Even Wagner couldn’t do for these sections what he accomplished in the great dramatic scenes. Belohlavek has a habit of lingering over narratives that need not be extended. His tempos are slow and inflexible. He misses certain points, failing to inspire the trumpets to sound above the strings at the climax of the prelude to Act I. The prelude to Act III is also much too slow.

Böhm keeps matters going smartly in the narratives and slows markedly in the great dramatic scenes. Always his tempos are flexible and suited to the requirements of the moment. He knows how to build a climax slowly, deliberately, keeping his total power suppressed until the final moment arrives, when it is released to devastating effect. None of the singers in the Glyndebourne cast is an international star, but none is less than satisfactory. Karnous is a little too hyperactive, too hectoring, though her singing is OK. Special honors must go to Rene Pape as Mark, a solid, well-sung, and well-acted presentation of the King. His vocal resources are impressive, particularly way down there, and his appearance and acting skills are formidable.

The camera work is sort of static, with images that often begin as points of light at infinite distance and grow slowly, seemingly interminably, into some figure or other object, or sometimes merely an announcement like “Act III”. The lighting also has this sort of static character, too often stygian deep blue. Is blue the right color for Tristan? In this production it is pervasive. I don’t want to be too negative about this staging. With all its shortcomings it does convey the messages of the composer adequately. It is usually well rehearsed, totally professional, and competently produced.

There is another important matter to resolve. In Tristan it is the orchestra that reveals the vivid and explicit sexuality that could not be acted out onstage, as well as a deep, explicit and comprehensive account of other psychological and emotional issues unseen and often unresolved in the action onstage. Wagner’s music has all but discarded the rules of harmony and tonality in the process, and in it unresolved dissonance is pervasive. It is the real narrator, the real conveyor of emotion and feeling in this work, and Wagner frees it of most of the rules and conventions that guided music in its course from Palestrina on through Beethoven. Whether this is good or bad is another matter, but in Tristan it is seminal. So, why do you need the video at all, when it is really of secondary importance?

If you must have it on DVD, there are others to think about. On DG, there are Barenboim at Bayreuth and Levine at the Met, with good singers and a fine orchestra. Levine seems often to favor funereally slow tempos. Also there’s Armin Jordan with the Suisse Romande (Bel Air) with mostly unfamiliar singers. He is a good conductor, and I would not cross him off the list arbitrarily. Finally, there is Zubin Mehta at the Munich Opera (Image Entertainment).

But here, Belohlavek’s tempos are too slow and too rigid, which lends a static quality to the reading.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2008

This remarkable staging of Tristan und Isolde by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, one-time assistant to Wieland Wagner, is quite simply the most fascinating and effective visual interpretation of the opera I’ve ever seen. Following Wieland’s proclivity for sparse sets against which the singers act vividly within the confines of minimal stage movement, Lehnhoff created a visual masterpiece using oval sets with steps leading up to them, only occasional backlighting, and a stunning use of dark colors that illuminate rather than obscure the opera’s length.

I was quite taken by the warm, sensitive conducting of Jiří Bělohlávek. He is very close to the exalted level of Furtwängler or Böhm, and keeps things flowing—which, in Tristan, is a major consideration. And let me tell you, folks, the London Philharmonic members play their little hearts out. This is not a cold or indifferent Tristan. It seethes with underlying passion from first note to last. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Andrew Quint
Fanfare, July 2008

Nina Stemme, of course, was the Isolde for Plácido Domingo’s high-profile Tristan a few years ago. Along with Deborah Voigt, she should be delivering wonderful representations of this character for years to come. Stemme inhabits the role… Her voice is rich and full, almost plush, coherent from a confident top to an earthy bottom, and she communicates the layers of meaning of her texts wonderfully.

As Brangäne, Katarina Karnéus is outstanding, palpably conflicted about her responsibilities to her mistress. She’s a terrific singing actress who makes her scene with Stemme in the second act memorably compelling. Some will find Bo Skovhus’s voice a little light for Kurwenal but he, too, does the job from a dramatic standpoint. René Pape is the Wagnerian bass of his generation, presenting King Marke with dignity and a sense of hurt that’s very moving. Bělohlávek assures a worthy orchestral contribution from the venerable London ensemble. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

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