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Wagner – Tristan und Isolde on DVD and CD



Recorded at Gran Teatre del Liceu, June 2002

Opus Arte OA 0935 D

3 DVD set – 257 minutes

Conductor – Bertrand de Billly
Stage Director – Alfred Kirchner

TV Director – Toni Bargall ó

Set Design – Annette Murschetz

Costume Design – Ann Poppel

Lighting – Jean Kalman


Tristan – John Treleaven

Isolde – Deborah Polaski

Mark – Eric Halfvarson

Kurwenal – Falk Struckmann

Brangane – Lioba Braun

Melot – Wolfgang Rauch

A shepherd / A young sailor – Francisco Vas

A steersman – Michael Vier

Royal Opera House Studio Recording: November 2004 – January 2005

EMI Classics 7243 5 58006 2 6

3 Cds & 1 DVD* - 227 minutes

Conductor – Antonio Pappano


Tristan – Placido Domingo

Isolde – Nina Stemme

Mark – Rene Pape

Kurwenal – Olaf Bar

Brangane – Mihoko Fujimura

Melot – Jared Holt

A shepherd – Ian Bostridge

A young sailor – Rolando Villazon

A steersman – Matthew Rose


Tristan and Isolde is one of those works that confront us with opera's oldest paradox. It is essentially a poignant love story set in the mists of time involving a dashing warrior hero and a beautiful young princess. Wagner illustrates this chronicle with four hours of music of sublime intensity demanding singers of a vocal maturity and a physical stamina totally at variance with our mental images of romantic passion. It is part of the magic of opera that the music transcends these obstacles on stage, but for it to do so under the unforgiving gaze of filmed close-up is a stiff test indeed.


To make matters worse this is a production of stark modernity, with unbecoming costumes and harsh lighting. The Act 1 ship board set looks like the empty recesses of a freighter with corroding metal plates and lines of rivets. Cornwall has long been renowned for its fine gardens, but that of King Mark's palace in Act 2 is reduced to a square of steeply sloped shaggy (and slippery) astro-turf, with a stretch-loftladder for a tower. Tristan's neglected palace in Act 3 fares a little better – it is at least recognisably a large building - though one would have expected some furnishings to have survived to make a better resting place for an invalid than bare boards.


Neither of the principals in this production, John Treleaven (Tristan) and Deborah Polaski (Isolde) are in their first flush of youth and both are figures of substance. As would be expected in a live performance of this length, each of them have uncertain moments, but it is a tribute to their considerable art that the magic works and they produce an entirely credible account of the story and the sheer radiance of their ardour is vividly expressed in both voice and visage.


Such is the power of their performance and Wagner's intention that the remainder of the cast are somewhat overshadowed. Falk Struckman (Kurwenal) alone stands out as a fully rounded character and is in splendid voice in Act 3. As Brangane Liobe Braun seems over anxious (a touch of Sybil Fawlty) and this uncertainty spreads to her voice. Eric Halfvarson carries all the voice and gravitas for a King Mark, but somehow failed to engage my sympathy.


The orchestra and soloists of the Liceu play with commitment for Bertrand de Billy. His tempi are slow – the recording is a full 30 minutes longer than the CD reviewed below – certainly some of that time is taken up with curtain calls and closing titles, but there is still a good deal of “fat” which dramatically would have been better pared off.


This is probably the best DVD of Tristan und Isolde available – but not, I feel, one that will remain a classic for all time.



No problems with suspension of disbelief for a sound-only CD, and this one, billed as the last of the great studio performances, was recorded over a period of weeks and edited with lavish care. Best of al,l the performers did not have to pace themselves for the complete opera but simply to concentrate on the extract being recorded in each session.


Placido Domingo dominates the proceedings. He obviously approached the role with a huge personal commitment investing his time unstintingly in preparation of both words and music, and the result is as good as it gets. Nine Stemme is on the young side for Isolde (both she and Mihoko Fujimara as Brangane, have rather flat German which works against them) but she has a firm grasp of the essentials of the role and turns in a very accomplished performance.


Rene Pape (King Mark) and Olaf Bar (Kurwenal) bring significant finesse and experience to the interpretation of their characters and there is luxury casting down to the smallest role: Rollando Villazon as the young sailor singing out the opening lines in the distance – his voice rings out like a bell - and Ian Bostridge as a super bucolic shepherd boy in the third act.


Pappano keeps a firm grip on the tension throughout and the string playing from the ROH orchestra is nothing short of sumptuous – EMI's dedicated sound engineers would not have it otherwise.


So is this perfection? Not for me – I've listened to both these new recordings several times and on each occasion I've been drawn back to the 2003 Wiener Staats Oper Live performance for Deutsche Grammophon [474 974-2] – for Deborah Voight's (Isolde) with apparently effortlessly floated top notes, for Petra Lang as by far the best Brangane, and above all for Christian Thielmann's conducting which really gets under the skin of the score and reveals Wagner's music in all its myriad beauty.


Serena Fenwick


* The DVD packed with the EMI Classics CDs offers an alternative way to listen, with the text and stage directions (in language of your choice) rolling with the music. We found this pleasanter than following the words with the insert booklet. [Editor]


© Peter Grahame Woolf