Tristan und Isolde

Daniel Barenboim
Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano
Date/Location
7 December 2007
Teatro alla Scala Milano
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
TristanIan Storey
IsoldeWaltraud Meier
BrangäneMichelle DeYoung
KurwenalGerd Grochowski
König MarkeMatti Salminen
MelotWilly [II] Hartmann
Ein junger SeemannAlfredo Nigro
Ein HirtRyland Davies
SteuermannErnesto Panariello
Gallery
Mostly Opera

Finally, after a year, this revelatory production, the most successful La Scala season opening in years, has arrived on DVD. I saw it live at La Scala last year, and it remains the highlight of my operagoing experience.

Really, I do not have much to add to my previous description of this simply astonishing production, one of the rare instances of opera truly being more than just a sum of the individual parts. With equal emphasis on the simply outstanding achievements of Patrice Chéreau, Daniel Barenboim and Waltraud Meier.

First, Waltraud Meier is an entirely compelling Isolde. Vocal shortcomings or not (I may add she is on fine form here), she simply inhabits the character of Isolde and the myriads of facets of her superb acting are convincingly transferred to this DVD. I remember how the entire house was paralyzed by the intensity of her liebestod, by far the most moving version I have seen her do. Undoubtedly giants of the past such as Astrid Varnay and the likes could do things with their voice, which Waltraud Meier cannot. However, Waltraud Meier can do things with the character on stage, which those of the past could certainly not.

This is the third DVD featuring Waltraud Meier´s Isolde (preceded by the Müller-Barenboim Bayreuth production and Konwitschny´s Munich staging), and by far the best. Even though Heiner Müller´s Bayreuth production had Daniel Barenboim and a superior Tristan in the shape of Siegfried Jerusalem. But they had no Patrice Chéreau to humanize the drama. In fact, he was asked, but declined. Incidentally, he also declined to stage the 1982 Bayreuth Tristan, which then went to Ponnelle..

Admittedly Patrice Chéreau´s staging is dark and sombre – a ship, a seawall, grey concrete walls encapsuling the drama. Distinguished by his superb personal direction of the singers and thorough analysis of the text, he transmits the emotions unlike any other director I am familiar with. Perhaps with one exception – as Patrice Chéreau has explained, he sees the second act love duet as a philosophical power struggle between Tristan and Isolde, and he may well be right. It would just have been so much more compelling to have it acted out in real.

Also Daniel Barenboim´s third Tristan and Isolde on DVD (he started out with the 1982 Bayreuth Ponnelle production), he more than keeps everything together.The poignancy and engaging interpretation places him high above anyone else both on or off DVD, including his own previous Bayreuth productions, perhaps as a result of this Scala DVD being recorded live.

Best of the rest was Matti Salminen´s dignified King Marke. Ian Storey definitely looks and acts the romantic hero. Vocally his timbre does not appeal to me, but he more than gets away with it. Michelle De Young does to a lesser degree, though she gains from the transfer to DVD. Gerd Grochowski portrays an energetic Kurwenal, vocally perhaps on the dry side.

It this the best Tristan and Isolde DVD on the market? Yes. Without doubt and with a large margin to the next (which in my opinion are Barenboim´s two previous Bayreuth productions, Ponnelle´s and Heiner Müller´s).

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

Waltraud Meier: 5
Ian Storey: 4
Michelle De Young: 3
Matti Salminen: 5
Gerd Grochowski: 4

Patrice Chéreau´s production: 5

Daniel Barenboim: 5

Overall impression: 5

The New York Times

‘Tristan’ Harmonies Trump La Scala’s Labor Discord

The gaudiest event of the opera season in Europe, La Scala’s opener on Dec. 7 was a sublime new version of “Tristan und Isolde,” directed by Patrice Chéreau under the baton of the house’s new principal guest conductor, Daniel Barenboim.

It was the first “Tristan” here in nearly 30 years. This being Italy, where everything must be a drama, offstage and on, the performance was preceded by much fuss and chaos. Workers at the opera house, exasperated by a longstanding, unresolved dispute over salaries and bonuses, derailed two pre-gala performances of the Verdi Requiem, which Mr. Barenboim was to conduct last month, and the imbroglio threatened to undo the opening before a strike was averted at the 11th hour.

One newspaper reported that orchestra players would still protest by playing in shirtsleeves rather than dinner jackets, which in Milan, the fashion capital, is apparently just shy of not showing up to play at all. In the event they dressed up like everyone else. (Mr. Barenboim went shoeless, due to some last-minute wardrobe malfunction, he later told Agence France-Presse, although the mishap clearly made not the slightest musical difference). As scheduled, Italy’s haute couture designers got to flaunt their ingenuity at cantilevering and buttressing. Perfumed waves of mostly aged Milanese; the presidents of Italy, Greece, Germany and Austria; the sheik of Qatar; and pomaded bankers, carting tickets priced up to $2,900, arrived under the glare of spotlights and television cameras before gawking mobs behind metal barriers, braving the cold and drizzle.

The offstage distractions instantly ended once Mr. Barenboim picked up the baton. He led a grave and shockingly intense performance, one all the more remarkable considering that half of the opera’s starring duo was a disappointment.

The veteran mezzo Waltraud Meier was Isolde. She was marvelous. A poised, unflaggingly intelligent musician able to call upon reserves of power, she sang without glamour but with her familiar drama and intensity. Tristan was Ian Storey, a British tenor favored by Mr. Barenboim who must have been suffering from nerves in his first time singing the part at La Scala.

It’s an impossible role, it’s true, but Wagnerites know not to expect perfection. With a pleasant, warm voice Mr. Storey struggled to rise above the orchestra and to heights of passion. Grizzled and enormous, he looked the part, at least, and he acted decently.

Mr. Chéreau, the distinguished director, proved how much acting counts. He stripped away all the usual silly Wagner theatrics and had the cast make every little movement count too. The chorus stayed in the background, stirring unobtrusively. Shifts of gaze and small gestures conveyed deep emotions. After the doomed lovers drank the fateful potion in Act I, they separated, lingering nearly motionless for several minutes, waiting to die, before Tristan, approaching Isolde, slowly fell before her, bowing his head, which she gently touched as Wagner’s famous love theme swelled.

Ian Storey and Waltraud Meier in Patrice Chéreau’s production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at La Scala in Milan. Credit Teatro alla Scala, via European Press Agency That subtle exchange of gestures was then echoed hours later, at the instant that Tristan really does die, a moment whose authenticity stunned the audience. There was another moment like it, when Tristan admitted to King Marke his betrayal with Isolde, and the two men silently embraced, a clench that would have seemed inexplicable had it not already been made clear, in all sorts of unspoken as well as spoken ways, just how much they still loved each other as virtual father and son.

A few Italian critics grumbled during intermission about that embrace, and also about Richard Peduzzi’s gray-on-gray sets, which actually dovetailed nicely with Mr. Chéreau’s moody, uncluttered direction. This is one of those operas that prosper without too many stage pictures, and the pocked, whitewashed ancient brick wall that was the production’s scenic leitmotif, along with a few cypress trees and a rusty, fog-shrouded freighter, sufficed to evoke an industrial, remote northern clime of indeterminate modernity. The mood vaguely brought to mind an Ingmar Bergman movie. Wearing long dusters, black and white respectively, Tristan and Marke strode around like a pair of stoic, depressed Scandinavian sailors.

As Marke, Matti Salminen, his mature voice sometimes hoarse, befitting the part, performed magnificently. The audience yelped and stomped during his curtain call. Michelle DeYoung, the gifted American mezzo, brought tenderness to Brangäne, Isolde’s attendant.

The heart and soul of “Tristan” comes down to the orchestra, and Mr. Barenboim, who knows this opera as well as anyone, drew rich, densely textured, multilayered sounds from his players. Occasionally they drowned out the singers, but that’s always the case; and more important, where they needed to, they stretched aching melodies as if toward infinity.

Mr. Barenboim is partly filling the job that Riccardo Muti vacated two years ago, when he quit here in a huff, and the Scala audience, to make apparent that it welcomed their new principal guest conductor, cheered him both after the second intermission and again when he shepherded the orchestra onto the stage for a lengthy curtain call.

The ovations lasted a good quarter of an hour. And from the highest red velvet and gold tiers, flowers showered down, pelting a grateful, beaming Ms. Meier, her face still blood-streaked from the last act.

MICHAEL KIMMELMAN | Dec 10, 2007

The Telegraph

The trouble with Tristan

Given all the attention being paid to rubbishy karaoke crooners such as Russell Watson and Paul Potts, it was refreshing to find the spotlight turning last week to the case of a genuine opera singer, working on the musical coalface rather than in media la-la land.

Ian Storey, a relatively unknown tenor hailing from County Durham, was selected by Daniel Barenboim to sing the leading male role in a prestigious new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, directed by Patrice Chéreau, at the mecca of La Scala in Milan.

Storey has been on the circuit for several years, and when I heard him in Madama Butterfly and Fidelio for Scottish Opera I found him perfectly decent rather than inspiringly charismatic. How did he land this plum assignment?

Well, to be brutally frank, nobody casting Tristan at short notice, as Barenboim was obliged to do, is spoilt for choice and I doubt that Storey was top of his original wish-list. Singing Wagner is no easy matter, as the music of his mature operas requires extraordinary stamina and the capacity to project over a large orchestra, often playing forte or louder, as well as a commanding physical presence which can visually communicate the characters’ heroic stature.

Another problem is that the roles tend to lie across a wide range, making them accessible only to tenors with a strong baritonal extension in their voice’s lower reaches. Of today’s stars, only Placido Domingo and Ben Heppner even begin to fit the bill, and both of them have been cautious about the amount of Wagner they have undertaken.

So how did Storey fare in the lion’s den? The reviews of the first night suggested that he had made a fair stab at the challenge and won friendly applause from an exigent audience. I saw the second night’s performance, and admired his conscientious articulation of the text and sensitive acting – Storey is tall and handsome and moves well on stage.

Vocally, however, he didn’t cut the mustard, being too much the Italianate tenor, not enough the Germanic baritone, and suffering from a curiously throttled method of producing sound. By the middle of the second act love duet, he was clearly in trouble, and before the third act, the management announced that despite an “indisposition”, he had kindly agreed to finish the performance – the result being that Tristan’s deathbed ravings were virtually inaudible.

Now it may well be that Storey was unavoidably succumbing to an infection or virus, but I am afraid that, as a hard-hearted critic, I have to say that flaking out like this doesn’t bode well for his longer-term future in this repertory. If you don’t have a constitution coated in rhinoceros hide, forget it.

Other elements conspired against him. I’m not convinced that either he or his Isolde (Waltraud Meier, incandescent in the sturm und drang of the first act, wayward and quavering in the more lyrical second act) were best served by Barenboim’s conducting. He lays into the score hard, as though it were a Bruckner symphony. It’s all very rich and dense, and blunt and flat-footed, too.

Colours are bright, outlines hard, tempi deliberate, but there’s not much “give” to the singers, not much romantic eroticism, delicacy or ambiguity. Chéreau’s production doesn’t show him at his incomparable best either.

Designed by his constant collaborator Richard Peduzzi to be set in what looks like a medieval-walled Italian town, with costumes by Moidele Bickel of greyly indeterminate period, it looks very beautiful. Yet, aside from a wonderful realisation of the effect of the love potion – it doesn’t so much transform Tristan and Isolde’s feelings for each other as force a fatalistic acknowledgement of them – it seems too intimate in its focus for a theatre as grand as La Scala.

Expectations ran so high for this production that there was bound to be some initial disappointment, and I hope that Storey’s confidence will build later in the run as his throat relaxes. Meanwhile, this was a performance which left me feeling weirdly detached from this most emotionally overwhelming of romantic operas – unlike at Glyndebourne this summer, where it left me reeling and speechless for hours after it had ended.

Rupert Christiansen | 13 Dec 2007

MusicalCriticism.com

Turning for the fourth time on record to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – a work he is currently performing at the Met – Daniel Barenboim shows how much his understanding of the piece has grown over the decades on this new DVD from La Scala. As much as his reading from Bayreuth in the early 1980s (now available on DVD) has received huge acclaim, for me Barenboim’s subsequent attempts have far more successfully reconciled the opposing aspects of the work, be it stasis and action, sensuality and austerity, life and death, silence and intense sound.

Conducting without a score, Barenboim’s feel for this opera is now more deep-seated than ever, and even the much-performed Prelude is breathtakingly fresh in this rendition. Inaugurating a new relationship with the La Scala orchestra (with whom he was making his debut), Barenboim also achieves a lyrical, romantic warmth that perhaps doesn’t always come through in his performances with the German orchestras – indeed, for me this softer side is preferable to Barenboim’s sometimes too muscular approach to this piece, which he says he has conducted more than any other opera.

The Argentine conductor has long wanted to perform Tristan with legendary director Patrice Chéreau, but that wish was not satisfied until this production opened in December 2007. The collaboration has certainly paid off. Chéreau eschews the inclination of many directors in recent years to impose an aggressively controversial reading on the work and instead presents it against a naturalistic backdrop. The staging is simple but beautiful, making the descent into the mystical vortex of night a compelling experience. Occasionally the murkiness is oppressive, but it suits this piece, and the literal representation of aspects such as the ship, combined with a detailed Personenregie, comes across very well on DVD. Nor does Chéreau take an entirely non-interventionist approach: aside from the effective use of walls to form psychological as well as physical barriers, nobody who has seen the production could quickly forget the remarkable staging of the Liebestod, in which a trickle of blood seeps down Isolde’s head as she dies. Like the whole production, the gesture is understated but profound.

Barenboim’s favourite Isolde has long been Waltraud Meier, and although the upper register of the role takes her to an uncomfortable place in her voice, her overall performance is in a different league to most of the rest of the cast. She is as ever a compelling actress who stops at nothing to convey the message of the piece, with searing vocal presence and a clear notion of what she wants from the role. You could hear it sung more beautifully but never more meaningfully or expressively.

By her side, British tenor Ian Storey is inevitably a little overshadowed, not inhabiting the role of Tristan with anything like as much excitement, but he is a strong, solid presence and does himself proud through his stamina. Matti Salminen is an outstanding, authoritative Marke and Will Hartmann is luxury lasting as Melot, but although Gerd Grochowski’s Kurwenal is very fine, Michelle DeYoung is a weak link with her rather squally Brangäne. The smaller roles are all notably well sung, showing Barenboim’s strong musical standards from top to bottom, and the performance has a real sense of occasion, opening the La Scala 2008-09 season with an air of relief after tensions and strikes by some of the staff.

The DVD is enhanced by Chéreau’s ‘Notes on Tristan’ in the accompanying booklet. The director communicates his doubts and worries about approaching the work, examining how passion, the suicidal instinct, loneliness, sex, mysticism, rituals, rebirth, power, external forces and death all collide in this remarkable creation. I find his description of Isolde’s death especially moving, a remarkable verbalisation of the processes she goes through in her final moments, and I would personally recommend reading the notes before watching the DVD as a way into Chéreau’s unique brand of theatre. A gripping release.

Dominic McHugh

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Kennst du das Haus, wo die Juwelen blüh’n?

Jeder Saisonauftakt der Mailänder Scala ist für Italien ein Staatsakt. Diesmal gaben Patrice Chéreau und Daniel Barenboim ihr Bestes für Wagners „Tristan und Isolde“. Doch nur des Dirigenten Kunst trägt bis zum Schlussakkord.

n Opernhaus als Nationalheiligtum, das sich einmal im Jahr frenetisch selbst feiert: das kann es so nur in Italien geben. Nirgendwo sonst wäre es denkbar, ein selbstverständliches Ereignis wie die alljährliche Spielzeiteröffnung mit ähnlichem Pomp zu begehen, wie es in Mailand am Tag des Stadtheiligen Sant’Ambrogio der Brauch ist.

Das Spektakel beginnt schon eine gute Stunde vor der Vorstellung auf den Straßen der Innenstadt, lange bevor man die Piazza della Scala erreicht hat. Im Umkreis von einem Kilometer verbreiten Polizeipatrouillen und Kontrollen die Atmosphäre eines bevorstehenden Staatsaktes. Zu den Gästen zählen dieses Jahr neben dem italienischen Staatspräsidenten Giorgio Napolitano auch Horst Köhler und Joschka Fischer, der österreichische Bundespräsident Heinz Fischer, der griechische Staatschef Karolus Papoulias und der Emir von Qatar, Scheich Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani. Vor dem Opernhaus thront eine Garde malerisch gewandeter Carabinieri zu Pferd, mit langen Umhängen, Zweispitzen und leuchtenden Federbüschen. Die Schaulustigen drängeln sich bis in die Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. hinein. In das Dauergeheul der Martinshörner mischen sich die obligatorischen Protestrufe demonstrierender Tierschützer und Pelzgegner, und irgendwie wird man schließlich, mitten in einem Pulk aus Prominenz, Polizei und rempelnden Paparazzi durch den schmalen Pfad zwischen zwei Absperrungen ins enge Foyer der Scala geschleust.

Sein Bayreuther Ring ist dreißig Jahre her

„Hässlich, monströs und kommunistisch“ sei der neue „Tristan“, der erste an der Scala seit dem von Wolfgang Wagner und Carlos Kleiber 1978, befand der Mailänder Kulturbeauftragte Vittorio Sgarbi nach der Premiere. Im unmittelbaren Vergleich der zeit- und schmucklosen Kostüme von Moidele Bickel mit der glamourösen Moden- und Juwelenpracht eines Publikums, das sich Eintrittskarten für 2000 Euro leisten kann, mochte man ihm beinahe recht geben.

Doch dafür, Patrice Chéreaus Inszenierung als „modernistisch“ zu bezeichnen, wie es die italienische Lokalpresse tat, gab es wahrlich keinen Anlass. Seine bildmächtige Bayreuther „Ring“-Entzifferung liegt lange zurück. Übrig geblieben vom einstigen Deutungsfuror scheinen nun professionelle Ernsthaftigkeit, profunde Musikalität und psychologisch-versierte Personenführung eines Regisseurs, der seine künstlerischen Wagnisse mittlerweile eher andernorts unternimmt: im Medium des Films, das ihm die Möglichkeit bietet, noch näher an die Figuren heranzugehen, noch intensiver in ihre Seelen zu dringen.

Jede Seelenfalte der Partitur gestisch ausgedeutet

Mit Wagners „Tristan und Isolde“ allerdings trug sich Chéreau schon seit einem Vierteljahrhundert. In unmittelbarem Anschluss an den „Jahrhundertring“, 1981, hatte Daniel Barenboim versucht, ihn für das Stück zu begeistern. Einen weiteren Anlauf machten Chéreau und Barenboim in den neunziger Jahren. Und jetzt, da sich der Scala-Intendant Stéphane Lissner anschickte, diesen langgehegten Wunsch mit der diesjährigen „Inaugurazione“ Realität werden zu lassen, schien die Premiere beinahe bis zur letzten Minute durch Streikdrohungen gefährdet. Die Erwartungen waren entsprechend hoch. Sie wurden im eindringlichen, intensiv atmosphärischen ersten Aufzug mehr als nur erfüllt.

Barenboim dirigierte einen kühnen, hochdramatischen „Tristan“ und ließ in schnellen Tempowechseln mit prägnanten Akzentuierungen und jäh wechselnder Dynamik eine wild zerklüftete innere Landschaft erstehen. Jede Seelenfalte dieser Partitur wurde gestisch ausgedeutet, der Fluss des Ganzen zugleich in ein stürmisches Wogen versetzt. Aus nachtblauem, nebligem Licht erhebt sich die gigantische Steinmauer, die Richard Peduzzi drei Aufzüge lang als Hauptelement seines Bühnenbilds dient: ein altes, verwittertes Gemäuer voller blinder Fenster, das schon halb in Natur übergegangen ist. Im ersten Aufzug wird es von einem großen, rostigen Lastschiff durchbohrt, dessen Bug frontal durch die Mauer gebrochen ist.

Traumtief ins Bewusstsein eingegraben

Wie Isolde – die immer noch herrlich ungestüme, zugleich bewundernswert artikulationsklar und intonationssicher gestaltende Waltraud Meier – hier verzweifelt die imaginäre Gischt ansingt, wie sie vor einem arrogant-blasierten Tristan kniet und ihn mit seinem Schwert bedroht, wie beide, durch den Trank verwandelt, somnambul und magnetisiert zueinanderfinden, sich verschmelzungssüchtig aneinander klammern, schließlich gewaltsam von Brangäne getrennt werden, wenn sie den roten Königsmantel über das siamesische Paar wirft – das sind Bilder, die sich traumtief ins Bewusstsein eingraben.

Immer wieder wird das Todes- und Auflösungsverlangen der beiden Liebenden schockhaft unterbunden: Musikalisch durch die grell und lärmend einfallende König-Marke-Welt mit ihren Märschen, Fanfaren und banalen Strophenliedern, szenisch durch jenen blindwütigen Aktionismus, mit dem Matrosen und sonstiges Gefolge dann über die Bühne toben.

Barenboim triumphierte bis zum letzten Klang

Doch leider fällt die Inszenierung in den beiden folgenden Aufzügen rapide ab. Dem großen Liebesdialog des zweiten Aufzugs fehlt die Spannung, was nicht zuletzt daran liegen mag, dass Ian Storey als Tristan – ganz im Unterschied zu Waltraud Meiers durch und durch „gelebter“ Isolde-Verkörperung – in gekonnten, aber äußerlichen Gesten steckenbleibt.

Auch die Bühne wirkt hier nur mehr dekorativ. Durch den giebelartigen Mauerausschnitt, den das Schiff zuvor rammte, sieht man nun die von Wagner geforderten „hohen Bäume“. Im letzten Aufzug klafft hinter der Öffnung das schwarze Nichts. Doch statt dass Isolde sich ihm mit ihrem Liebestod überantworten würde, stolpert sie dann einfach nur tot zu Boden. Zuvor hatte es schon ein veritables Ritterfilmgemetzel gegeben und massenhaft Theaterblut, das von Tristans Wunde auf ungeklärte Weise auch an Isoldes Schläfe gelangt.

Stimmlich hob sich Ian Storey seine Reserven für den eindrucksvoll bewältigten letzten Aufzug auf. Insgesamt klingt sein Tenor jedoch allzu monochrom für die Partie. Auch mit Michelle DeYoungs bisweilen unangenehm scharfem Sopran in der von Chéreau als ältliche Amme angelegten Rolle der Brangäne wurde man nicht richtig glücklich. Matti Salminen war ein durchweg verlässlicher Marke, Gerd Grochowski ein frischer Kurwenal. Daniel Barenboim aber triumphierte mit fiebriger, nicht nachlassender „Tristan“-Spannung bis zum letzten, verlöschenden Klang.

JULIA SPINOLA | 10.12.2007

Rating
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A production by Patrice Chéreau
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