Tristan und Isolde

Jiří Bĕlohlávek
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
7 June 2003
Glyndebourne Opera House Lewes
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanRobert Gambill
IsoldeNina Stemme
BrangäneYvonne Wiedstruck
KurwenalBo Skovhus
König MarkeRené Pape
MelotRichard Decker
Ein junger SeemannTimothy Robinson
Ein HirtTimothy Robinson
SteuermannRichard Mosley-Evans
The Guardian

Glyndebourne’s new production of Tristan und Isolde is a gravely beautiful affair, haunting and meditative, reflective rather than visceral. The director is Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who probes the work with a sharp, analytical scrutiny, in an attempt to expose its complex philosophical essence.

Shot through with Schopenhauerian pessimism and quasi-Buddhistic ideas of renunciation, Tristan deals with a love so intense that the phenomenal world cannot contain it. Consummation is achievable only in surrender to the metaphysical flux that pervades the universe, identified with death, though Wagner also sees it as regression to the state of unconsciousness before birth.

Roland Aeschlimann’s set is consequently a vast uterine vortex, the “womb of night” in which the lovers play out their catastrophic affair. A shockingly brilliant lighting plot alternately absorbs and ejects them, obliterating them in a purple haze as desire seizes them, stranding them in the stark light of day as reality intrudes.

Lehnhoff is also aware that the origins of Wagnerian dramaturgy ultimately lie in classical theatre. The steps of the vortex resemble an amphitheatre. Physical gestures are minimal though not stylised, the movement of a hand or the turn of a head speaking volumes as the corresponding emotion heaves upward from the pit.

This is a supremely intelligent achievement, though it lacks the extremes of feeling that must overwhelm the audience as well as the characters. The pervading sense of austerity and restraint extends to the music, with the performance geared to a cast who have never sung their roles before and could perhaps never sing them in a larger theatre.

The conductor is Jiri Belohlavek, whose approach mirrors Lehnhoff’s in its astonishing exposure of the score’s depths, with every shift in texture painstakingly laid bare by the London Philharmonic.

Nina Stemme’s Isolde and Robert Gambill’s Tristan are both gloriously lyrical, though the outer emotional edges occasionally elude them. Stemme, in particular, is ravishing, though you miss the neurotic mania in act one. Gambill, similarly, isn’t quite up to Tristan’s madness in act three.

There are great performances from René Pape as the betrayed King Mark and from Bo Skovhus as Kurwenal, desperately touching in his helpless devotion to Tristan. The downside is Yvonne Wiedstruck’s rather inelegant Brangäne. The whole gets closer to the work’s meaning than any other version I know – though at times it achieves this at the price of the opera’s emotional impact.

Tim Ashley | Wednesday 21 May 2003

The New York Times

With its rolling Sussex countryside, lush gardens, placidly munching sheep and formally clad guests themselves placidly picnicking, the Glyndebourne Festival Opera might seem a bastion of staid English opera tradition.

So it is. But Glyndebourne also offers its annual innovations in its three-month summer season. Two new productions, in their different ways, offered real novelty. ”Tristan und Isolde” is the first Wagner opera ever done at Glyndebourne. And Peter Sellars’s production of Mozart’s ”Idomeneo,” with sets by the much-talked-about sculptor Anish Kapoor, has provided a whiff of controversy.

John Christie, who inaugurated Glyndebourne’s opera performances in 1934, had wanted a Wagner festival, an English Bayreuth. But his theater’s size — 311 seats when it opened, expanded in stages to 830 by 1977 — proved too small; hence Glyndebourne’s focus on Mozart.

But in 1994 a brand new and much admired theater was opened. It seats 1,200, and has a slightly more generous orchestra pit, enough for at least some Wagner without reductions. Like ”Tristan,” which offered 69 players from the London Philharmonic Orchestra (plus more for offstage effects); this compares favorably with the 73 that the huge Metropolitan Opera in New York deploys for the same opera.

The production has been widely (if not universally) praised, some calling it the finest ”Tristan” of their lives: ”More beautiful and moving than any I have ever witnessed,” wrote Rupert Christiansen in The Daily Telegraph. Perhaps it was a classic case of overheightened expectations, but I was frequently impressed and rarely moved. This is the ultimate operatic love story, a tale of passion and betrayal and guilt. Wagner feared, it seems seriously, that a great performance might drive his audience mad. No fear of that in the gentle Sussex countryside.

The problems started in the pit. The Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek led a solid, sober performance, but one neither awash in sensuality nor driven by searing passion. The larger problem was the theater’s size, or acoustics. Even with a reasonably full string complement, the playing sounded dry. Wagner had toyed first with performing the opera in the Munich Residenztheater, now the Cuvillié theater, which is smaller than the old Glyndebourne theater in its final form. But he switched to the larger Hoftheater, largely to accommodate the full lushness of his orchestral effects.

The stage direction, by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, looked sensible, with only a few odd little touches, most notably a hinted-at Sapphic yearning for Isolde by her retainer Brangäne. Roland Aeschlimann’s set, which varied whale-belly ribs in a curling oval from act to act, looked handsome but limiting, although his lighting was captivating. Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s costumes were peculiar, alternating rough-and-ready medieval armor and ratty gray royal robes with distractions like Tristan’s see-through pleated skirt for his ravings in Act III.

Even so, the American tenor Robert Gambill and Mr. Belohlavek managed to whip up some real, mad intensity in the third act; combined with the Kurwenal of Bo Skovhus — the best I have ever heard — the delirium scenes were the highlight of the June 29 performance. (Mr. Skovhus’s counterpart, the German mezzo Yvonne Wiedstruck as Brangäne, was the obvious weak link, vibrato-shy and pitch-awry.)

The entire cast was singing this opera for the first time, except for the King Marks (René Pape) and for this and the last performance, on July 4, the fine English bass Peter Rose). No doubt their gingerly caution explained the unfortunate cut in the Act II love duet, once standard but now less commonly encountered in major opera houses.

Some thought Mr. Gambill, a baritonal Tristan with a clearly demarked upper extension, had a voice too light for his part, but I’m not sure that will be a problem for him. It will be interesting to trace the international progress of his Isolde, the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. She sang beautifully, from contraltolike depths to ringing high C’s, but always within a lyric context.

When she performed the role of Senta in ”Der Fliegende Hollander” at the Met a few years ago, her voice did sound small for that house, even if her performance fully captured that character’s visionary intensity. Here her Isolde lacked that same level of emotional power, especially in Isolde’s furious first act. But Ms. Stemme is not just an accomplished singer but also a deeply intelligent one, and one suspects she will grow into the part by the time she takes it on at Bayreuth two years hence.

JOHN ROCKWELL | Published: July 7, 2003

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128 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 204 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC Radio 3)
A production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff