Tristan und Isolde

Zubin Mehta
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Bayerisches Staatsorchester
4 July 1998
Nationaltheater München
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanJon Fredric West
IsoldeWaltraud Meier
BrangäneMarjana Lipovšek
KurwenalBernd Weikl
König MarkeKurt Moll
MelotClaes Hakon Ahnsjö
Ein junger SeemannUlrich Reß
Ein HirtKevin Conners
SteuermannHans Wilbrink
Mostly Opera

Peter Konwitschny created this Tristan and Isolde for the Bavarian State Opera (Munich) in 1997 with Waltraud Meier as Isolde and Siegfried Jerusalem as Tristan. Waltraud Meier, thankfully is present on this DVD. Siegfried Jerusalem, unfortunately is not.
While those preferring Tristan in a staging approximating the 1865 Hans von Bülow-conducted Munich world premiere, may not find Konwitschny´s approach to their liking, the controversy of this production is largely superficial. In essence Wagner´s libretto is followed rather closely, at any rate much closer than usual with Konwitschny.
Peter Konwitschny´s vision is rather straight-forward, but nevertheless relies on an audience willing to look beneath the surface with Isolde´s Act 1 ship a modern white cruiser, finding her and Brangaene on deck sipping cocktails beneath umbrellas.
In the second act, Tristan throws in a red sofa on a backdroup of colourful walls for the love duet. This, however, seems an imaginary room, as the action takes place in front of this tableau, surrounded in black, when King Marke arrives.
Tristan then returns to his deserted home, walls crumbling down, a naked bulb from the ceiling, looking at pictures from his childhood. Then Isolde comes. Ultimately they disappear and the opera ends with the image of King Marke and Brangäne standing in front of their coffins.
The most puzzling thing about this DVD is the labeling of the production as one with an “optimistic” ending. It simply does not make sense. I have seen this production in the house, and it is indeed one of the saddest endings to any opera I have seen, the entire Bavarian State Opera paralyzed at the end. As I see it, Tristan and Isolde´s imaginary love in the second act does not hold in reality, in true life they are just plain dead, visualized by Marke and Brangäne standing in front of their coffins. How are we supposed to believe anything else? Unfortunately..
This production indeed is one of the most powerful I have seen live. A not insignificant part of this impression relies on Waltraud Meier´s Isolde.
The major strength is Waltraud Meier´s mesmerizing Isolde, here with her entire radiance, displaying her immensely varied acting skills as well as effortless throwing off the high Cs. An exceptionally powerful performance, overpowering the vocally stressed as well as dramatically uninteresting Jon Frederic West as Tristan.

Marjana Lipovsek makes a fine Brangäne as does Bernd Weikl as Kurwenal. Kurt Moll has the necessary authority as Marke, though obviously he is just an opera singer pretending to be King Marke.

The performance is well-conducted (by Zubin Mehta), though not at the level of either of Barenboim´s Tristan DVDs from Bayreuth, but nevertheless interesting and with the essential continuous flow.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Waltraud Meier: 5
Jon Frederic West: 2
Marjana Lipovsek: 4
Bernd Weikl: 4
Kurt Moll: 4

Zubin Mehta: 4
Peter Konwitschny´s production: 4-5

Overall impression: 4-5

Whether one will like this performance will to a large extent be determined by how one judges the visual aspects of the production itself. Musically, Zubin Mehta’s conducting of this score is a majestic achievement – with playing, from the great opening Prelude onwards, incisive and beautifully articulated by the Bavarian State Orchestra. The digital sound enhances the impression of opulent and sonorous strings, thrilling brass and beautifully phrased wind playing (a couple of moments of acidic oboe playing in the Prelude aside). This is not a performance that hangs fire, with speeds, particularly in the opening act, taken at a brisk tempo.

Tristan is an intensely symphonic opera with complex chromatic harmonies and controlled dissonances, many of which are textually thick, almost glutinous. Some performances can sound explosive because of this. Herbert von Karajan’s, for example, is perhaps the most sheerly orchestral version ever recorded, with a Berlin Phil so weighty one is almost consumed by the sound of them. Mehta certainly uses the orchestra to thrilling effect, but there is a balance to the playing that never sacrifices the span of the work’s drama in favour of a lush, sonic spectacle. But Tristan is also an extraordinarily simple opera – with only two main characters who dominate the course of the tragedy and a small group of other characters acting at ancillaries to the story of Tristan and Isolde’s progression from love to death. It is surprisingly difficult to cast – and is becoming more so nowadays with a lack of Heldontenors available to sing the taxing role of Tristan.

It is a joy, therefore, to find the Tristan of the American tenor, Jon Frederic West (soon to sing the role at Covent Garden later this year), so convincing. He reminds me in many ways of the great Jon Vickers – both physically, but more importantly in his ability to thrill with a voice that is all-consuming. His presence dominates this production – and the voice is fully capable of sustaining the long scene with Kurwenal prior to his death with an ease that is impressive. This is a voice that rings with clarity – and to hear him in the love duet is just bewilderingly beautiful. Waltraud Meier is a fine Isolde, without really being a great one. She is often breathtaking, but one misses the phrasing and beauty of tone that Astrid Varnay or Birgit Nilsson brought to this role. It is a relief, however, to find that she does not force her tone – partly because Mehta creates an atmosphere of balanced textures which allows her voice to float over the most formidable orchestral fortes. She, too, has formidable staying power – her Transfiguration at the close of the opera is both powerful and noble and shows little sign of the tiredness that can affect some singers in this role. Bernd Weikl is a resplendent Kurwenal and Kurt Moll an impressive King Mark.

Peter Konwitschny’s production, however, presents problems, at least for this reviewer. Some will find the innocence of the staging a delight – with its ship, park and childlike simplicity. He himself believes this production gives the opera a renewed optimism – and this is certainly evident. There are moments, however, when the tragedy of the work is all but eliminated in favour of simple retelling of a love story. He does not see the opera as a metaphysical metaphor for a love that can only exist after death, rather as a means of escape from the materialism of the modern world. These lovers, do in fact, seem to inhabit a virtually empty world where even a sofa dragged on stage becomes a luxury. Compared with say, Elektra, which often seems to be produced in virtual darkness, Tristan does allow itself the extra parameters of brightness and optimism (and colours clash in this production like the loudest cymbals). I don’t think this production actually draws its inspiration from Wagner’s music – which is anything but simple – but from a desire to transform the overwhelming tragedy of the drama into an eternal retelling of one of the great love stories. The costumes, designed by Johannes Leiacker, do much to emphasise the simplicity of the vision. Along with the set design, one is reminded of a picture postcard world far removed from the usual settings given to this opera.

This is certainly a Tristan that many could live with and it survives repeated viewing well. And, it is crucially a gripping performance. This, however, is Mehta’s achievement – and he encourages his principals to produce singing that is really an exception to the modern day standard of underwhelming performance tradition.

Marc Bridle

Don’t be fooled by the lurid imagery on the box – this is a surprisingly upbeat and playful staging of Tristan und Isolde. Director Peter Konwitschny, whose celebrity affords him equal billing to Zubin Mehta, is the creative force behind the production, with stage designer Johannes Leiacker putting the visual details to this bold reimagining. The first act takes place on the deck of a cruise ship, with the love potion served as cocktails. In the second act, a floral-print sofa is brought into the forest as a focal point for the action. And in act three, Tristan sits in a gloomy bedsit, looking though holiday snaps on a slide projector, as he waits for Isolde.

The gravest charge that can be brought against these visual themes is campness – hardly an attribute we associate with this opera, and not one that benefits it greatly. On the other hand, the settings are never obtrusive, and are just one aspect of Konwitschny’s thorough dramatic interpretation. Just as important is his Personenregie, drawing convincing and meaningful dramatic performances from each of the leads and achieving real, meaningful interaction between the lovers. He also has some clever ways of bringing the more metaphysical aspects of the story down to a more corporeal (and therefore representable) level. The ending in particular, is thoroughly reimagined, with Tristan’s bedsit becoming a metaphorical representation of selfness and unity, as it is variously abused and intruded upon, including in a riotous raid by King Marke’s men. Tristan also comes back from the dead, at least in some spectral form, during the final scene to lead Isolde off into the beyond: a risky directorial strategy, but one that Konwitschny pulls off convincingly.

The cast is excellent, but is dominated by Waltraud Meier as Isolde. She is on fine form, lyrical, nuanced, and continuously engaging. Her tone has a rich, dark quality, even in the uppermost register, which allows here to fill even the most acrobatic phrases with emotion. Jon Fredric West too is captured at the very height of his powers, and gives a convincing and compelling performance of Tristan. Konwitschny has clearly worked hard to get the chemistry just right between the two of them. Appropriate facial expressions accompany every phrase, but the acting also takes into account the timescale at which the drama unfolds. So expressions and phrases rarely seem to take them by surprise, rather the words seem to flow out of the stage drama, codifying the actions that we are seeing. True, the facial expressions are exaggerated for the sake of the more distant live audience, and can seem a little contrived in close-up, yet they always remain convincing.

The supporting cast also gives fine performances. Marjana Lipovšek is steady and dependable as Brangäne, less florid in tone than Meier and complementing her well. Occasional intonation problems in the lower register stand out, but only because of the uniformly high musical quality elsewhere. Bernd Weikl also supports well as Kurnewal, a rich, steady foundation beneath West’s more impassioned utterances above. The recording was made in 1998, which may explain how so many of the lead singers are captured in such youthful prime. Kurt Moll, as King Marke, was also at the top of his game, steady and focussed in each of his interjections.

Like all of Wagner’s mature operas, Tristan has been subjected to revisionist muisical tendencies in recent years, with conductors applying more discipline to tempos and dynamics and attempting to balance clarity of line with intensity of expression. More often than not, the results are distinctly underwhelming (try Janowski’s recent recording for an extreme example), but here Zubin Mehta manages to get the best of both worlds. Tempos often feel slightly on the fast side, but rubato, while ever-present, never seems impulsive or extraneous. There is plenty of passion here, but there is plenty of detail as well. The orchestral lines come through with rare clarity, as do the vocal lines. Every word is audible, something for which the singers, the recording team, and possibly even Konwitschny, should take some credit. But more important, I think, is Mehta’s musical direction, the space he gives to each of the singers, and the focus on line and phrase that he encourages from them.

The video director is Brian Large, which is probably all you need to know about the quality of the filming. There are a lot of close-ups, but they are never pulled right into the singer’s face. More importantly, the editing between shots is never rushed, matching well the pace of the music. That’s particularly evident in the Liebestod, in which the camera remains trained on Meier’s face throughout, without any wavering or distraction. Elsewhere, Large indulges in a few cinematic indulgences, the long fades between shots at the end of the second act for example, but all serve the production well.

The only disappointment is the graphic design of the box. The image on the front cover does little to convey the nature of this production, and the stills in the booklet are in a grainy black and white. There are no extras either, which may disappoint some. Even so, this is an excellent Tristan and deserves high recommendation. Elements of both the stage design and the musical interpretation may irk the most stubborn of traditionalists, but even they should find something of interest in this clever, sophisticated and continuously engaging production.

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
649 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.0 GByte (flac)
Broadcast (BR 4) from the Münchner Opernfestspiele
A production by Peter Konwitschny
Jon Fredric West replaces Siegfried Jerusalem as Tristan. Waltraud Meier is announced as indisposed due to a cold.
Also available as video