Tristan und Isolde

Antonio Pappano
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
23 November 2004 – 9 January 2005
Abbey Road Studios London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanPlácido Domingo
IsoldeNina Stemme
BrangäneMihoko Fujimura
KurwenalOlaf Bär
König MarkeRené Pape
MelotJared Holt
Ein junger SeemannRolando Villazón
Ein HirtIan Bostridge
SteuermannMatthew Rose

Any major new recording of Tristan und Isolde is a big event, and this is bigger than most. As possibly the last studio recording on such a scale, it carries a weight of expectation, something doubled by an assumption which many never believed they’d hear: Plácido Domingo’s Tristan. Of course, the 60-something tenor could never tackle this role onstage now, but it is not often one hears quite such a fantasy interpretation being realised on disc; even after Domingo’s previous EMI releases of Wagnerian scenes, the idea of his recording this masterpiece in full seemed a little far-fetched. The advantage of the recording studio is that his Tristan never seems to tire and he gives an ardent account, characterised by the almost baritonal warmth of his voice. He may swallow the odd word but this is a committed and communicative performance, and he rises to the heights of Act 3.

Even so, it is the conducting of Antonio Pappano and the Isolde of Nina Stemme that truly put this in the highest league. Right from the start of the Prelude, which sounds languid without being really slow, Pappano draws a performance of glowing warmth. He moulds each detail but is never indulgent, with the result that the long spans all fall naturally into place. There is no need to over-stress Pappano’s Italianate credentials, especially not when he conducts such an idiomatic Wagnerian performance, but they show themselves in the way he brings a bel canto quality to this music. This is a work that may have pushed the boundaries of tonality but it also reaches back to the world in which the composer served his operatic apprenticeship. Pappano’s experience of Tristan in Brussels helps to make this sound like a ‘lived-in’ performance.

Stemme is everything an Isolde needs to be: singing with radiant grandeur, she is rare in being able to sound sensuous even on the high notes. From her exciting first entry, she captures Isolde’s temperament, and her Liebestod is notable for its beauty; her partnership with Domingo makes for a thrilling love duet. It is not often that a Brangäne sounds almost as glamorous but Mihoko Fujimura sings with a warmly focused and even tone. René Pape is a noble and sonorous Marke but Olaf Bär is less distinctive and occasionally woolly as Kurwenal. As for the cameos, Rolando Villazón’s Sailor is much less impressive than Ian Bostridge’s ethereal and alert Shepherd. Even if this is not a recording to knock its legendary predecessors off their pedestals, it is an important addition to the discography and a stunning Tristan on today’s terms. More than that: we’d think ourselves in operatic heaven if a live Tristan came close to this today.

The Guardian

“This is a very, very dangerous opera to conduct,” Antonio Pappano writes of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. “It works on you like a drug – you have to give your heart and soul and everything.” His words function as a kind of credo for his new EMI recording of the work and provide, by and large, an accurate summary of what you will hear if you choose to listen to it. The music’s narcotic quality is very much to the fore. This is a heady, high-Romantic Tristan, fierce in its cumulative sweep and lyricism, less overtly erotic or neurotic than some. Like any major interpreter of the work, Pappano understands the crucial difference between tempo and pace, frequently holding you in what feels like suspended animation while the music presses onwards. Far superior to his current Ring-in-progress at Covent Garden, it’s a fine piece of conducting that marks him out as a Wagnerian of considerable stature.

The set’s ultimate raison d’être, however, is not Pappano but the Tristan of Placido Domingo. It’s a role he has never sung on stage – nor, perhaps, would he be wise ever to attempt it. There is no lack of drama in his performance, though he’s often at his most impressive where you least expect it. He’s wonderful at conveying Tristan’s emotional bewilderment in act one, and rises to genuinely tragic heights in act three, where his depiction of Tristan’s madness is harrowing and uncompromising in its directness. The second-act love duet, however, isn’t on the same level of inspiration: it’s effortlessly done and beautifully phrased, but short on the requisite qualities of ecstasy and rapt introspection.

The rest of it is more problematic. Nina Stemme’s Isolde sounds consistently gorgeous, but is no match for Domingo in subtlety, which leads to moments of dramatic unevenness. René Pape is a tremendous, agonised Marke, though Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne is unacceptably bland, and Olaf Bär, the most patrician of German baritones, self-consciously overdoes the bluffness as Kurwenal. The set is well worth hearing, but the inequalities elsewhere prevent it from ranking among the greatest Tristans on disc.

A very different account of the work, meanwhile, has surfaced on the Walhall label, in the form of a radio broadcast from the New York Met in 1955, conducted by Rudolf Kempe – an important issue, given that the great man never made a studio recording of the work. It’s high-voltage stuff: decadent rather than romantic. Kempe sustains a mood of near-psychotic mania throughout, while the lovers – Astrid Varnay and Set Svanholm – snarl and snaffle at each other like animals on heat. He also makes a number of cuts in the score – possibly to help Svanholm, who by 1955 was way past his best. Varnay is simply riveting, though the boxy, treble-heavy sound emphasises the shrillness in the upper registers of her voice.Like Pappano’s recording, this is both compelling and flawed.

Tim Ashley | Friday 12 August 2005

Richard Wagner long planned but never composed Die Sieger (The Victors), an opera based on the life of Buddha and informed by the writings of Schopenhauer, the closest European thought has ever come to Buddhism. Instead he wrote Tristan und Isolde, perhaps the most persuasive aesthetic evidence we have of the Buddhist principles that human existence is mainly suffering, and that the primary human task is the detachment from the desires that cause such pain.

This is not, apparently, what Wagner thought he was doing. As he wrote to Franz Liszt in December 1854, not long before beginning to compose Tristan, “As I have never in my life tasted the true joy of love, I will raise a monument to this loveliest of all dreams, in which from first to last this love shall for once be satisfied utterly.” This from the epicenter of the Romantic movement, of which Wagner was zenith or nadir, depending on one’s taste. From the vantage of the psychologically informed if emotionally benumbed 21st century, Wagner seems instead to have, in Tristan, raised to romantic love not so much a monument as a tombstone.

While, like Shakespeare, Wagner is never less than deeply compassionate to every one of his characters, to modern ears this opera seems more a scathing critique and condemnation of romantic love. The passion of Tristan and Isolde admits no reality and, famously, no daylight—none of the divisions and boundaries and restraints on which everyday life and any true, mature love must be built. Wagner’s “loveliest of all dreams” means misery or death for all whose lives these lovers touch, as well as for the lovers themselves, who remind each other again and again, from Act I through Act III, that they can find true fulfillment only in extinction. Some romance.

It is this latter view that conductor Antonio Pappano and an all-star cast of singers propound in this recording, and it is absolutely convincing. This Tristan is not the hysterical, harrowing, utterly chilling wall of tortured, overwrought, unbridled sound the work so often becomes—and to great power and effect. It is instead a four-dimensional psychomusical drama that, for the first time in my experience, explores in exquisite psychological detail the work’s endless shadings of ecstasy, shame, rage, bewilderment, grief, yearning, despair, and guilt. These are the true subjects, it seems to me, of Wagner’s most Buddhistic work in a lifetime of creating allegories (such as the Ring cycle) intended to instruct the listener in the pain and suffering that inevitably result from attachment to desire for wealth, power, possessions, immortality, etc. For the first time, this opera sounds not like a pathological passion embodied in sound, but a life-affirming exorcism of that pathology—a catharsis in the Greek sense toward which Wagner always aspired, and which makes him, perhaps, the only true dramatic Classicist among the Romantics.

This catharsis is effected through the minute observation of every musical, emotional, dramatic, and psychological nuance in the score—conductor and singers alike are meticulous about Wagner’s dynamic and tempo markings—and it is a testament to the thoroughness of all involved that every role is consummately realized. There is a brief passage in Act I, scene iii in which Brangäne and the orchestra attempt to soothe the despairing, raging Isolde, and the musics of the two women’s mental states first overlap uncomfortably, then smooth out into Brangäne’s reassurances. The vocal line is fiendishly difficult without at all calling attention to its challenges, and the mezzo, Mihoko Fujimura, makes effortlessly lyrical music of it, serenely sailing these troubled musical waters in a perfect sonic embodiment of what she is trying to do for her mistress. This role has not been sung better, not even by Christa Ludwig. Fujimura’s top is so good that she sounds as if she could sing Isolde herself.

Such attention to detail is paid by everyone here—this may be the most thoroughly prepared recording of the work ever made. Though Plácido Domingo has never sung the role in public, he has been studying Tristan for some 30 years. (The first soprano he approached to be the Isolde of his début was Birgit Nilsson, who sadly passed away in January 2006 at the age of 87.) Though his German will never be idiomatic, Domingo’s voice, at 65, actually sounds better than ever, and almost entirely leached of any trace of the Italian and French repertoire he specialized in for so long. One indicator of the comprehensiveness and balance of his tone: After a particularly impressive passage in Act I, my wife exclaimed “So dark!” just as I exclaimed “So bright!” We were both right.

Act III is the supreme test of any dramatic tenor—long, exhausting, and exhaustive, a dying man spiritually eviscerating himself before our ears. How to convey this without exhausting oneself and one’s audience? Wolfgang Windgassen, that Method singer, wailed and gasped and shouted in agony, and his discipline and musicality made it all work immensely well. Domingo is entirely different but no less powerful in making precise choices of vocal color and volume and phrasing, and it works even better. In a single phrase or note he can reveal Tristan’s complex psychology of despair, regret, love, and guilt, his walking wide-eyed into betraying and being betrayed, into death, and he does it over and over again. There is true German style in his singing, every marble note carved with a chisel of hardened steel. This is singing at the highest level, so deeply felt as to be hardly bearable—and it is all in the sound.

The young Nina Stemme is a bit warmer-toned than many sopranos who sing Isolde, and that, in concert with a vocal and interpretive precision every bit Domingo’s match, is more welcome in this role than one who cut his teeth on Nilsson’s titanium sound would ever have thought—and Stemme has a liquidness Nilsson never had. Suddenly, and barely a year after Deborah Voigt’s excellent Vienna Isolde, Stemme has defined for herself an entirely new category. I now can think of no one else I’d rather hear sing this part.

The same goes for René Pape as King Marke. This crucial role is small, and too often even the best basses seem to pick a single emotion—grief, sorrow, sadness, gentle reproach, anger at trust betrayed—and color Marke’s entire narration in that hue. Pape’s palette holds them all, and he is a master of the telling tonal tint, the expressive phrasing. His singing qua singing is absolutely gorgeous—no syllable goes uninterpreted, nothing is phoned in. But this is true of everyone here.

The original versions of the 12th-century Tristan legend’s characters—Tristram, Yseult, and the characters Wagner conflated into Kurwenal—were all in their late teens, and Olaf Bär’s feisty, terrier-like Kurwenal sounds it. The bottom of the voice is not as full or as steady as it might be, but that is my only vocal quibble with this recording. The Young Sailor is the rising superstar tenor Rolando Villazón, who makes of the brief song that opens Act I not the usual slow, melancholy elegy (which runs counter to the text), but the crowing of a young stud feeling for the first time his full virility, passion, and voice, and trying to fill all outdoors with them. Even the light-voiced Ian Bostridge is ideally cast and coached as the Shepherd—after two acts full of huge, world-class voices singing at the limits of their abilities, the Shepherd’s brief interlude of relative calm at the beginning of Act III is delicious respite before we are plunged again into Tristan’s living hell.

After a shaky start in the Act I prelude, which does not entirely cohere until about halfway through, Pappano’s grasp of Wagner’s most perfect and most modernist score—with which Western music continues to come to terms a century and a half later—never again falters. Pappano seems more versed than most conductors in the dramatic functions of Tristan’s leitmotifs, so much more subtle and dovetailing than those of the Ring. This makes his reading of the opera more musically revealing as well. Again and again I heard familiar motifs, either rising from the low strings and brasses or emerging from supporting woodwind parts, in places I had never noticed them before. Almost always these were the motifs relating to night, death, and the love potion’s fatal magic; conscious or not, Pappano’s interpretation emphasizes that it is only the lovers’ mutual desire for death that simultaneously engenders and dooms their love.

The sound of Abbey Road’s Studio 1 is warm and rich, deep and immense, with sweet highs and little spotlighting. The session photos show Domingo and Stemme singing from the middle of the orchestra, and Domingo is very occasionally half buried in the sound—though only in the most “natural” way. The set includes a free DVD-Video disc containing the entire opera in 5.1-channel surround with onscreen libretto and translations, for those so equipped. The text is easily readable, with an excellent essay by Wagner scholar Barry Millington.

For 40 years, the Nilsson-Windgassen-Böhm recording from the 1966 Bayreuth Festival has been the recording of Tristan und Isolde against which all others have been compared and found wanting by most critics, including this one. In the December 2004 Stereophile, I concluded my review of the recent Christian Thielemann recording, with Deborah Voigt and Thomas Moser, with “One of these every 40 years or so seems about right.” Now we have two such. This new one might be the best ever, and for a long time to come.

In their promotion of this recording, EMI hints darkly that it might be “the last” studio recording of a full-length Wagner opera. Even had this been true—Naxos has since disproved it by releasing their own new studio Tristan—I could have been grateful for this recording for the rest of my life. It is the Tristan I have always wanted to hear.

—Richard Lehnert

Any new recording of Tristan und Isolde – especially a studio made one – has to make some exceptional claim on the listener’s attention to warrant comparison with the great performances of the past. Fortunately, this new recording does exactly that; in almost every respect (and most notably one) it is a formidable achievement. For many, the main interest of this set will be in Plácido Domingo’s Tristan and for a singer who was 63 when he went into the studio to set down this most heroic of tenor roles his singing is indeed remarkable. Do not expect to hear Domingo attempt to equal the likes of Jon Vickers or Windgassen because he doesn’t, but there are moments when he is simply stunning. At the end of his long Act III monologue, “verflucht sei, fluchtbarer Trank!/Verflucht, wer dich gebraut!” (the end of track 6, disc 3), he is totally believable as an accursed and desperate man. It is one of many moments where Domingo shades his Tristan with a mortality and humanity that is breathtaking. That this Tristan is also more lyrical than usual adds a warmth to the phrasing that subverts the occasional toughness and wiriness that other singers (Vickers, especially) have brought to Tristan in the past. This works wonderfully in the Act II love duets with Isolde (their first duet “O sink’ hernieder” is as seductive as any on record); it is less convincing in Act III where Tristan’s madness needs rather more colour in the voice than Domingo is sometimes willing to acknowledge; and at times it is sometimes difficult to distinguish Domingo’s voice from that of his Kurwenal, Olaf Bär. But even here, Domingo has some surprises in store. At “Kurwenal, siehst du es nicht” (end of track 5, disc 3) Domingo summons up enormous reserves of vocal power to counter Pappano’s swelling orchestral intensity. Domingo, moreover, does seem more willing than many Heldentenors to evoke a sense of dreaminess – as opposed to pure delirium – to Tristan’s hallucinatory rantings. If Domingo’s tones are not quite as burnished as some they do not diminish the effect of this most human and humane of performances.

His Isolde, the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, whom I rather disliked in the role at Glyndebourne some years back, has grown into the role magnificently. As with her current Bayreuth Isolde, this is a voice that has both youthfulness and a self-evidently taut vibrato. Yet, she can be piercing where needed, especially in Act II where she sings with a range and accuracy that contrasts effortlessly with the gloominess and high drama of her Act I curse. Bill Kenny, reviewing her Isolde at Royal Swedish Opera in March 2004, described her voice as being “lyrical and powerful, completely free from strain throughout its entire compass and her acting is both subtle and persuasive”. All of this comes through on this recording, and she and Domingo make a formidable pair with the range of their emotions emerging with not just great clarity but also humanistic detail; listen to them together in Act I, track 10, 2’00 to 4’21 and both singers achieve quite wonderful symmetry of passion. On first hearing, though, some may be slightly disappointed with her Liebestod which at times seems to be something of a struggle for her given Pappano’s overwhelming orchestral domination. Diction certainly seems somewhat rushed at times, but the crystalline beauty of her top notes is fantastically assured, even against the orchestra’s electrifying playing.

As with its two leads the rest of the opera is cast from strength, extravagantly so in the case of the small roles of the Shepherd (Ian Bostridge), the Steersman (Matthew Rose) and the Young Sailor (Rolando Villazón). As with a remarkable Act II of Tristan done at Lucerne last year, René Pape sings an utterly convincing and noble King Marke, one which is both mesmerizing and in which Pape gives an example of disciplined legato phrasing that is unrivalled among singers of the role today. The way he shades his voice to reflect the playing of the bass clarinet in his plaintive tribute to Tristan’s former love (Act II), or with the ’cellos and the violins in his tribute to Isolde (again Act II), convey a very private sense of inwardness. Mihoko Fujimora is a languid Brangäne, but one who is also capable of getting beneath the notes she is singing. There is a certain fallibility to her tone, which works well with her characterization of Brangäne as a clear subservient of Isolde, but at the same time there is also a sense of awe in her steady voice which works to good effect. Jarod Holt takes his biggest role on disc to date (as Melot) and he is growing into a wonderfully assured singer.

One of the problems with all recordings of Tristan und Isolde is that none are absolutely ideal, and this recording is not an exception to that, outstanding though it is. What Domingo and Stemme bring to the roles of the lovers is something very much of our time (Domingo particularly has no obvious predecessor) but even if one does warm to their impassioned and lyrical singing of their roles one always looks for just that something extra. Just as Nilsson could be somewhat cold in her assumption of the role of Isolde, and Vickers somewhat overly-subjective, so Domingo and Stemme lack a complete apotheosis of what these complex roles demand. Stemme has one advantage over Domingo in that she has sung the role on stage, yet Domingo’s forty years on the opera stage, and the last fifteen or so in Wagner, especially as Siegmund, bear uncommon fruit. He is undoubtedly inside the role of Tristan and uses his voice to both sensuous and cathartic effect. There is no question that his Tristan is a unique and compelling performance.

Yet, the single most impressive contribution to this recording is by the conductor and orchestra, and it is this which makes the set so indispensable. Antonio Pappano has sometimes been accused of lacking the ‘Wagnerian line’, notably in his recent performances of Die Walküre. Yet, this Tristan is stunningly conducted and played. Swift as it is, with no cuts, what emerges is a performance of natural pacing, one which gives the illusion of being longer and broader than its timings suggest. Orchestrally, it comes closest to the recordings of Leonard Bernstein with the Bavarian State Orchestra (1983) and Herbert von Karajan with the Berliner Philharmoniker (1971-2), both of whom treat this opera as an incandescently scored symphonic music drama. Pappano is quicker than either, though he emphatically misses none of the detail the score throws up. His Act I Prelude, for example, clocks in at 11’45 (Karajan takes 12’32 and Bernstein 13’58) yet the detail is wonderfully drawn: tempi are articulated as Wagner directs, with no sudden rush in stringendo towards the Prelude’s central climax, and the all-important timpani and the underlying bass line are beautifully drawn out as they should be, but which so rarely happens. Hear Pappano at the Prelude’s central apotheosis (disc 1, track 1, 7’32 to 8’25) and you are listening to one of the great performances of this music. But, if Pappano encourages his singers towards an elemental, intuitive lyricism, he is not necessarily kind to them (as Goodall invariably could be). Pappano takes a volcanic view of the score; climaxes thunder and rage like in few other recordings, and in this his recording owes most to Karajan’s studio performance. His singers struggle, and EMI have not, as they did for Karajan, made too many allowances for this. After the lovers have drunk their potion Pappano encourages his orchestra to soar above them with a lushness that almost suggests the dreaminess of a drug. In Act II, both Domingo and Stemme are consumed by a plushness of orchestral sonority that almost suffocates them. Unlike Vickers, who for Karajan fought back against the formidable onslaught of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Domingo is sometimes swamped by the Covent Garden forces. Yet, where Karajan saw beauty only in the orchestral playing of the Liebesnacht in Act II, Pappano sees the orchestra as an extension of the libretto and as such offers a near ideal balance between the eroticism of the voices and the orchestra. Act III opens with one of the darkest and most spectacularly despondent performances of the Prelude I have heard. The sense of desolation is palpable, and Pappano treats the long cor anglais solo which follows it as a single human voice. Throughout Act III Pappano elicits power surges from the orchestra that are overwhelming: Isolde’s arrival is a real climax, for example, and during the Liebestod he evokes elemental drama and passion.

None of this would be possible without the magnificent playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; on this form the greatest opera house orchestra in the world. Surprisingly few studio recordings of Tristan use opera house orchestras (Goodall’s is the most notable exception), and yet the advantages of using them are so obvious when one hears a truly great performance of this opera. Playing with an uncanny ability to listen to each other, the Covent Garden orchestra are like instrumental voices permeating the vocal transfiguration. A solo cello (disc 1, track 3, 1’41, for example) has a ‘voice’ one simply does not experience with a symphony orchestra. Similarly, in Act II Pappano deliberately evokes individual oboe solos to conjure the image of Isolde during the first duo; it’s radiance is utterly human. With dynamics taken as widely as possible the sheer beauty of this recording becomes self-recommending.

Whatever the shortcomings of this recording – and they are far fewer than on many rival performances – there is no question that this is an important and compelling performance of Tristan und Isolde. If, as rumour has it, this will be the last studio recording of a major opera, then EMI have ended the history of studio opera on a very high note indeed.

Marc Bridle

The Economist

Vocal perfections

MONUMENTAL is the right word for EMI Classics’ new recording of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. Plácido Domingo, at the distinctly mature age of 64, is singing the title role for the first time in his career, and he has done it just in time. For this is likely to be the last new studio recording of a Wagner opera, or any other opera on that scale.

It took 15 sessions, spread over eight weeks last winter, to complete the recording at the Abbey Road Studios in London’s St John’s Wood. Although no one at EMI seems to question the artistic imperative for doing it, a combination of cost and consumers has caused a fundamental rethink about the way opera should be packaged and sold. “It’s the least-productive time for recording since the 1950s,” says Theo Lap, vice-president of EMI Classics.

Mr Domingo’s fees, together with those of the distinguished cast, were not the major expense. Hiring the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under its admirable conductor, Antonio Pappano, and booking the recording studios for weeks on end pushed costs to over £500,000 ($885,000). At the same time, the market has been changing fast. Many opera-lovers who used to buy CDs now prefer to watch and listen to a DVD of a live performance.

In a little over half a century, studio recordings of great but imposing works by composers such as Wagner have come full circle. The first complete recording of “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, had an incalculable impact by broadening musical taste. Carlo Maria Giulini’s 1970 version of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” is still considered one of the greats, as is Berlioz’s “The Trojans”, which was conducted in 1986 by Sir Colin Davis. The first Tristan, which led the way in 1953, became possible because of the invention of the 33-rpm long-playing record. The performance was conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, with Kirsten Flagstad, an incomparable Norwegian soprano, as Isolde.That recording was notorious as well as celebrated, however, because two of the difficult high C’s in the climactic love scene were sung not by Flagstad at all, but by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, then a young soprano who could manage them better than the Norwegian, with her heavier voice. Such technical tricks were taken for granted by record producers and engineers, who wanted the sound to be perfect, and took time to make it so. A number of music critics denounced the inauthenticity, but the audience did not mind. This brilliant EMI recording still sells steadily.

Mr Domingo is EMI Classics’ prized possession. He is perhaps the greatest of the three great tenors, which also include Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras. He conducts opera, and is the general director of the Washington National and the Los Angeles Opera companies. He has sung no less than 115 operatic roles, which take him from Mozart to Wagner, via Handel, Offenbach and Andrew Lloyd Webber. His performance of Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at Covent Garden last month was unforgettable. So when Mr Domingo told EMI Classics that he was ready to record Tristan a couple of years ago, no one needed to consult the board. All they had to do was find the money to pay for it. An anonymous sponsor helped the project along with a substantial, but undisclosed, donation.Mr Lap clearly has to maintain some sort of balance between artistic and commercial advantage, but it is very hard. The first shipment of Mr Domingo’s Tristan, released worldwide on August 1st, numbered 15,000 sets of three CDs and a complete sound track on DVD. If sales reach 40,000 in the first year, Mr Lap will be well pleased, but that does not mean EMI will have begun to recoup its investment. He talks in terms of 50 years, maybe never. That is the measure of Mr Domingo’s importance to EMI.

Opera on DVD now sells more than CDs or video. Since it is a visual experience, collectors are willing to sacrifice perfect sound and the cast of star singers, even in small parts, that are the rule on CDs. Co-productions with broadcasters or opera houses can produce DVDs of live performances for around £100,000, or one-fifth of the cost of a major studio recording. Only EMI and Universal retain a fragile commitment to studio recording, but Mr Lap talks only in terms of significantly cheaper recordings of shorter works by Verdi and Puccini. “We will continue to make one or two a year,” he says. But no more Wagner.

Mr Domingo’s Tristan, with his Isolde, the accomplished Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, is the last of a distinguished line. Was it worth the trouble and expense? Since he came late to Wagner and he has never sung the role on stage, the performance will be scrutinised by music critics to see how it compares with his luminous Siegmund and his Parsifal, and with other Tristans. Mr Domingo himself has no illusions about the scale of the challenge. He told the Gramophone that the role is so demanding on a tenor voice that he feared his vocal cords would be damaged by a stage performance. Recording gives the voice time to recover between sessions, and to repeat imperfectly sung passages.

His voice is now better suited to the part than it once was. Wagner’s roles were written for a Heldentenor, a heroic tenor voice. As Mr Domingo’s voice has darkened with age it has taken on the helden quality. In the past, he has been criticised for his uncertain command of German. The diction of Ludwig Suthaus on Furtwängler’s Tristan is noticeably clearer than Mr Domingo’s. But this is nitpicking. Wagner is writing about love and death. Mr Domingo and Ms Stemme together produce a musical lyricism and a sexual passion that make the cost and the effort entirely worthwhile.

Aug 4th 2005

Online Musik Magazin

Domingos Zauber, Stemmes Glanz

Opernneuaufnahmen, die sich neben den „großen“ Aufnahmen der Vergangenheit behaupten können, sind ein seltener Glücksfall. Gerade Neueinspielungen der Werke Richard Wagners hatten in der jüngeren Vergangenheit meist eher dokumentarischen Rang denn absolute künstlerische Bedeutung. Mit der vorliegenden Einspielung von Tristan und Isolde knüpft die EMI an ihre große Tradition von bahnbrechenden Aufnahmen an, die in den Abbey Road Studios entstanden sind, und das in einer Umbruchphase des Musikmarktes, in der Studioproduktionen von Opern aus finanziellen Gründen fast nicht mehr möglich sind. Bei allem Charme der Unmittelbarkeit, den gute Live-Mitschnitte haben können, spricht die Sorgfalt im Detail (und im Fall des Tristan der auf der Bühne kaum zu kaschierende Verschleiß der Hauptdarsteller im Verlauf dieses Mammutwerkes) klar für das Studioprinzip.

Nicht ohne Grund ist Placido Domingo dem Tristan auf der Bühne aus dem Weg gegangen. Der gute Wille vieler Tristan-Darsteller, die Rolle zu singen und nicht nur mit Geschrei zu stemmen, scheitert regelmäßig sang- und klanglos im wahrsten Sinne des Wortes. Domingo demonstriert, wie es – unter Studiobedingungen – auch anders geht. Er singt die Partie mit überlegener Phrasierung aus, und mit seiner überragenden Technik behalten die Töne bei aller Expressivität (die Domingo keineswegs schuldig bleibt) immer einen „schönen“ Klang. Konnte man solche Gesangskultur bei Domingo noch erwarten, so verblüfft die Jugendlichkeit der männlich-baritonal eingefärbten Stimme, die auch unter diesem Gesichtspunkt mit der jüngeren Konkurrenz nicht nur mithalten, sondern diese an die Wand singen kann. Einziges Manko ist Domingos Mühe mit der deutschen Sprache. Zwar ist der Akzent weniger störend als in seinen früheren Wagner-Einspielungen, aber bei schnellen Stellen singt er gerne über die kleinen Notenwerten rhythmisch sehr frei hinweg.

Steht Domingo eher am Ende seiner Jahrhundert-Karriere (die er mit diesem Tristan einmal mehr krönt), so hat sich Nina Stemme gerade nach und nach das hochdramatische Fach erobert und im Sommer ihre erste Bayreuth-Isolde gesungen (unsere Rezension), verkörpert also eine andere Sängergeneration, deren erster Stern sie werden könnte. Ihre Isolde, darin Domingo (fast) ebenbürtig, ist immer Klang, auch sie setzt in den hochexpressiven Stellen die Tragfähigkeit der warm abgedunkelten Stimme (die auch den nötigen Glanz besitzt) als Ausdrucksmittel ein. Im Duett des zweiten Aktes singt Domingo noch eine Spur runder, überlegener in der Gestaltung der Gesangslinie – da zeigt sich auch die riesige Erfahrung. Überlegen ist ihm Nina Stemme in der Genauigkeit, mit der sie jeden noch so kurzen Ton singt, und in der Leichtigkeit und Ausgewogenheit, mit der sie die kleinen Notenwerte nicht als „Füllmaterial“, sondern als wichtigen Bestandteil der musikalischen Phrase interpretiert. Mit ihrer perfekten Aussprache kann die Schwedin Bedeutungsnuancen in den Text hineinlegen, die Domingo verschlossen bleiben.

Dieses Paar, das durchaus die Bezeichnung „Traumpaar“ verdient, wird auf höchstem Niveau ergänzt durch René Pape als König Marke. Die Stimme ist wunderbar sonor bis in die höchste Lage, die Pape bruchlos erreicht, und gleichzeitig sehr wandlungs- und nuancierungsfähig. Pape gibt dem König damit gleichermaßen Würde von Amt und Person und Trauer über den Verrat, und so ist der Schluss des zweiten Aufzugs mit dem großen Monolog Markes – der bei schlechten Sängern schnell zum „Durchhänger“ einer Aufführung wird – ein (weiterer) Höhepunkt dieser Aufnahme.

Vielleicht liegt es an der Brillanz von Domingo, Stemme und Pape, dass die Brangäne von Mihoko Fujimura etwas neutral klingt. Die Partie ist durchweg sauber gesungen, und dass durch die präsente, aber im Vergleich zu Nina Stemme leichtere Stimme den Abstand zur Isolde wahrt, ist dramaturgisch sinnvoll. Problematischer ist der Kurwenal von Olaf Bär. Man hört dem Sänger an der überaus sorgfältigen Aussprache seine große Erfahrung mit dem Kunstlied an. Jeder Buchstabe ist wohlgeformt, und die berührende Wehmut, mit der Bär Kurwenals letzte seiner Worte im Sterben singt, versöhnen mit mancher weniger geglückten Passage. Bär hat zwar die Technik und die Höhe für die Partie, aber (und das unterscheidet ihn von den anderen Sängern) nicht die „heldische“ Kraft, mit der er allein durch Klang und Klangfärbung die Rolle gestalten könnte, sondern er muss durch die Art der Aussprache „nachbessern“. Die Verhöhnung Isoldes im ersten Aufzug etwa verliert dadurch an der urwüchsigen Gewalt, die sie haben müsste; ähnliches lässt sich auch im dritten Aufzug festmachen.Luxeriös besetzt ist der junge Seemann mit Rolando Villanzón, der trotzdem ein Fremdkörper bleibt: Zu bedeutungsschwer ist die Artikulation, zu nachdrücklich sind die Betonungen für die kleine Rolle, die im Kontrast zum schicksalsschweren Leiden Tristans und Isoldens mehr volkstümliche Einfachheit behalten müsste. Jared Holt (Melot) Ian Bostridge (Hirt) und Matthew Rose (Steuermann) runden das Ensemble überzeugend ab.

Dirigent Antonio Pappano ist in Bayreuth, dem vermeintlichen Mittelpunkt des Wagnertums, mit einem soliden, aber keineswegs außerordentlichen Lohengrin nicht übermäßig glücklich geworden. Nach diesem Tristan allerdings wäre den Festspielen zu wünschen, dass Pappano einen neuen Anlauf unternähme, den „Grünen Hügel“ zu stürmen. Mit dem vorzüglichen Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (herausragend das Englisch Horn von Alan Garner zu Beginn des dritten Aufzugs) gelingt ihm das Kunststück, einen ungeheuren orchestralen Sog zu erzeugen, ohne seinem Sänger-Starensemble damit die Wirkung zu nehmen – vielmehr sind die Stimmen hervorragend in den Orchesterklang eingebettet, und Sänger und Orchester geben sich wechselseitig die musikalischen Impulse. Pappano kostet Wagners überaus raffinierte Instrumentation aus und schafft allein durch diese Klanglichkeit einen imaginären Spielraum, in dem sich das Drama auch ohne Bühne entfaltet. Er denkt in großen Phrasen und hat stets die musikalische Entwicklung und ihren Zielpunkt im Sinn. Dadurch stellt sich ein starker „Drive“ nach vorne ein, ohne dass die Musik je eilen würde. Nie fallen einzelne Details heraus, alles ist in den großen Bogen eingebaut (auch wenn dadurch manches weniger prägnant klingt als in anderen Einspielungen).

So bewegen sich die genannten Einschränkungen und Kritikpunkte auf einem Niveau, das die meisten Operneinspielungen (von Live-Aufführungen, insbesondere des Tristan, ganz zu schweigen) nicht ansatzweise erreichen. Da freut man sich besonders, dass die EMI als Zugabe zu den drei Audio-CDs gleich noch einmal die komplette Aufnahme als DVD in die Box hinzulegt – so kann, wer die entsprechende technische Ausstattung hat, im Homekino-Sound hören und dazu auf dem Fernseher das Libretto verfolgen. Üppig mit vielen Abbildungen ist auch das Booklet ausgestattet. So gibt es (Kostenargumente lassen wir außen vor) für Wagner-Liebhaber eigentlich nur einen Grund, den Schuber im Regal stehen zu lassen: Das wahrhaft scheußliche, jede Kitsch-Hürde einrennende Cover. Das allerdings sollte man für Domingo, Stemme & Co. ruhig in Kauf nehmen.

Stefan Schmöe

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Domingo never sung Tristan on stage.