Tristan und Isolde

Karl Böhm
New Philharmonia Chorus
Orchestre National de l’ O.R.T.F.
7 July 1973
Théatre Antique d’Orange
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanJon Vickers
IsoldeBirgit Nilsson
BrangäneRuth Hesse
KurwenalWalter Berry
König MarkeBengt Rundgren
MelotStan Unruh
Ein junger SeemannHorst R. Laubenthal
Ein HirtHorst R. Laubenthal
SteuermannPaul Taillefer
Stage directorNikolaus Lehnhoff
Set designerHeinz Mack
TV directorPierre Jourdan
Mike Richter


Live performance on an outdoor stage. The set is a single ring structure; lighting is used to vary the scene of action. Costumes are simple and stark, using color to reflect changes in performers’ conditions. Movement on the open, arced stage is surprisingly fluid and effective; the stylization seems to aid the dramatic effect and comes to facilitate the drama rather than to distract from it. Audio appears to be from a complete performance different from the several which gave rise to the video; poor lip sync is a notable consequence.


Böhm is the master of the music; he propels it mightily, yet never draws attention to the conducting. The orchestra (French Radio) seems up to Wagner’s demands; the chorus handles its minimal task adequately. Nilsson is captured late enough to reflect the woman Isolde more than the force of nature she portrayed in earlier decades. Vickers, too, is perfectly human yet manages every phrase not only without effort but as though it were the only way to express the thought. Hesse is merely competent, and so stands out as a relative weakness; Berry is excellent both vocally and dramatically. The other soloists are capable.


Video is inadequate: fuzzy with excessive contrast and saturated color. Sound is marginal, lacking clarity and frequency extremes; the quality is about that of a good AM radio broadcast. With the distractions of French synopses and Japanese subtitles, only the transcendent performance redeems this recording. The next time a Böhm, a Nilsson, and a Vickers come along, Wagner will be better served. However, in our lifetimes this performance must suffice.

Evaluation: Essential but flawed (I)

There is no doubting that this live Tristan exudes a certain magnificence. This despite a catalogue of hurdles to one’s enjoyment – inclement weather (boy, was it windy that day!) and a recording that hides much orchestral detail being paramount amongst those barriers.

It is instructive to compare this version with Böhm’s much more famous Bayreuth/DG performance (1966, DG The Originals 449 772-2). The Prelude to Act 1, for example, does not have the same intensity in Orange as it does on the Green Hill. Yet how fascinating to watch this conductor in action and to marvel at how his minions follow him – downbeats are vague in the extreme. On the production side of things, there is an annoying habit of cutting from the ongoing Prelude to the cast list and back. This is distracting and is still going on 10 minutes in!. A missing beat at around 4’34 similarly annoys. Nevertheless, there are interesting things to note about the qualities of actually seeing the performance in progress – if we did not see the double-basses at one point, would we follow their important three-note figure at that point at all?

Recorded balance is, perhaps understandably, variable. Isolde (Nilsson) in her opening scene is distanced, the orchestra close-up. Yet how wonderful to see how impressive and imposing Nilsson looked as Isolde, proud and defiant. She was not young at the time (55!) yet her vocal powers are almost all there, and her mature conception of the role is certainly all present and correct. Her vocal acting is supreme (compensating at times for weaker lower notes); and how memorable is her floating of the phrase ‘Er sah mich in die Augen’. But most impressive, surely, is her Curse. Surely there can have been fewer more frightening invocations of the dark powers of black magic than this.

Jon Vickers’ Tristan makes an impressive entrance, becoming particularly strong at the end of the first Act. Vickers’ timbre is instantly recognisable. Of course, it is in Act II that heights of passionate lyricism are reached (a fact that Böhm seems intent on pushing right from the word go – the Act opens with an orchestral ‘scream’ and Böhm at his fluent best). The still on the cover of the product is taken from the famous duet (‘O sink’ hernirder’). A pity Vickers’ acting ability tends towards zero – in fact a pity that the duet is lit at all (a Goodall Tristan at ENO in the eighties had the stage lit in such a way that it was impossible to distinguish where the voices came from – a remarkable visual analogy for the wedding of souls that takes place here). The endless motivic repetitions on the scene do indeed give the impression that this night could go on forever in this most spiritually yet also sexually charged prolongation of the highest form of love. Brangaene’s Warning emerges here as the stroke of dramatic genius it really is – her voice really does surface as if it comes from another planet. In fact, throughout the work, Ruth Hesse’s Brangaene is an excellent foil to Nilsson’s Isolde – the scene in Act I where Wagner contrasts Brangaene’s hero-worship of Tristan against Isolde’s answers (a masterclass in musically-composed sarcasm) is particularly impressive.

Bengt Rundgren’s King Marke is very, very strong of voice, but there is just so much vibrato there it is off-putting. His costume and make-up hardly does him any favours, either – just where did they get that stuck-on wig from?. A last minute addition from a joke-shop up the road, surely. Like Vickers, if you don’t look at him there is much to admire – his ‘Dies Tristan, Dies Tristan zu mir’ in Act 2 is really heartfelt, a vocal portrait of disbelief and disappointment; again, in Act 3, he is a powerful vocal presence.

The Act III Prelude is magnificent as an evocation of Tristan’s spiritual desolation (Böhm looking here for all the world like Nosferatu!). Walter Berry’s Kurwenal looks so devastated as he sits beside the prostrate Tristan.

The cor anglais’ solos balance the off-stage Sailor in Act I in that an extended monodic line that carries high semiotic and dramatic meaning. Both solos make their emotional point in this performance. If only Kurwenal’s surprise at Tristan’s awakening weren’t so stagey – yet all memory is effectively erased because of the power of Vickers’ monologues. Indeed, Vickers is at the very apex of his powers in this Act – the crushing disappointment he feels when, instead of an approaching ship all that one hears is the cor anglais’ piping, is visceral. Vickers has just the right ‘Helden-edge’ (that edginess of tone so characteristic of a Heldentenor) so that his voice cuts across and through anything.

Of course it is Isolde who closes proceedings. Comparison between this ‘Verklärung’ and that of 1966 is instructional. Nilsson’s placing of ‘Hoch sich hebt’ is just as awe-inspiring, just as spot-on; yet the repeated fortissimo brass chords so cataclysmic in 1966 are less than that here, the recording not helping by putting them firmly in the background.

Perhaps it is Böhm that emerges as the hero in the final analysis. His pacing of Act I is excellent, so much so that the climactic final moments as Tristan and Isolde ‘discover’ one another are positively rapturous (the ecstatic applause at the end of this act is fully deserved); Act II becomes an unforgettable love-poem; Act III, along with the Wotan-Brünnhilde end of Walküre, becomes one of the greatest of all leave-takings. If only we could hear more of the orchestral detail that was surely there in 1973. But to speak so is almost blasphemous – we should be eternally grateful we have this at all.

English subtitles are available. Mainly reliable, there are some interesting licences, chief among them being the translation of ‘Welt-Atem’ in the Verklärung as ‘Universal Stream’ (as opposed to the more literal, and usual, ‘World’s-breath’) … The staging is spare, yet effective, concentrating the concentration on events on-stage.

The fact remains that whatever the shortcomings of this DVD (strange balances, jerky camera-work etc), this is an experience to treasure. It should be in every Wagnerian’s collection.

Colin Clarke (II)

Although I will discuss more fully the artistic qualities of this recording in my forthcoming survey of Tristan on record, it is such a performance of stature that an individual review is essential. It is only the second Tristan to appear on DVD – but is easily the finest. It also one of the greatest performances of the opera ever set down on either film or record.

Its greatness stems from the pairing of Nilsson and Vickers as the lovers and Böhm as the conductor. It is in turns a volatile, incandescent and passionate performance. It surges forward relentlessly – the theatricality perhaps more dramatically realised than in any other performance, including Böhm’s 1966 Bayreuth Tristan with which it has much in common. Nilsson is the Isolde there as well – and the anger, frustration and meltingly intense singing of that performance are evident again in Orange, only perhaps even more so. Only two years earlier Nilsson and Vickers had sung their first Tristan und Isolde together at Buenos Aires under the lugubrious baton of Horst Stein – a recording that has recently been released on CD but which suffers markedly in comparison with this blistering performance. Vickers, who recorded the role for Karajan in 1972, is tremendous on all three recordings – tormented with pain in Act III, awe-inspiring in Act II. If the Karajan performance is perhaps a little glacial in its tone (not helped by a very forward brass balance) this Böhm recording seems almost fiery in its warmth. What both the Stein and the Böhm confirm, however, is that the urgency and unhinged passion of Vickers’ Tristan is not unique to the Karajan set. Robin Holloway called it a ‘tour de force’ (although he admitted he never wanted to hear it again). It is evident on the Böhm not just through the sound but through the spectacle of film. The impact is extraordinary as we see Vickers’ tortured expressions, his superb theatricality and almost savage ravings.

It is this elementalism that makes the film version of this performance so extraordinary. Yet there are drawbacks. Recorded live and in the openness of the amphitheatre the risk of extraneous noises are evident less so on the DVD than on the Rodolfo CDs of this set. The opening of the Prelude (almost inaudible on both formats) is perhaps more intrusive on the CDs yet the mistral which by chance blew around the auditorium that evening provided glittering sound effects which the DVD rather understates. As the young sailor sings of the wind in the opening scene we actually hear the wind swirling around the stage – as atmospheric as you could possibly want it. However, there are wonderful moments of the wind blowing Isolde’s sheer-white dress as she sings of her passion which are irresistible to the eye.

The staging is in fact marvellously simple – it never draws our attention for one moment away from the performances. The stage is a circular flight of bleached-white stairs, leading everywhere and nowhere, like an Aeschylan riddle, and the action takes place solely around it. The mood is set largely by the use of light which is always spectacular – compass shaped beams that spread out like stars, hues of red and blue that swathe the stage in a permanent glow. Often faces are the only visible parts of singers as the rest of the stage is plunged into blackness – their movements and expressions teasingly like puppets. The ending of the opera – after the love potion has been drunk and during the Liebestod – is beautifully done as the light expands to encircle orchestra and stage. It is reminiscent of a blinding mid-day sun. The only drawback to this film are camera angles which pan back so far that both stage and singers can seem like dots on the horizon. This is most telling during the preludes, but also during some of the drama. The atmosphere of this performance can never be in any doubt, however – it is all consuming.

Although the sound is sometimes rather opaque the voices are projected with ease and never seem swamped by the orchestra (Birgit Nilsson’s Curse and Liebestod have to be heard to be believed). The orchestral playing (very ragged during the Prelude with both woodwind and brass hopelessly out of tune) picks up markedly and soon becomes stunning under Böhm’s electrifying direction. Occasionally there is a feeling that lips and words are not wholly synchronised. There are no English subtitles (and the Japanese ones are removable). The on screen synopsis during the preludes is in French. There is one cut, in Act II, Scene 2, from ‘Dem Tage! Dem Tage!’ through to ‘das nachtsichtig mein Auge wahres zu sehen tauge’.

This is a simply fabulous historical document that catches breathtaking performances on the wing. It is unlikely to be surpassed. Its vast expense (well over £100) will probably be a drawback for many wanting to buy this disc – but the performance is absolutely priceless. A cheaper video version (in somewhat less appealing sound and colour) is available from the Bel Canto Society ( ).

Marc Bridle

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Dreamlife, Kultur, Hardy, TOL
Technical Specifications
649×432, 1579 kbit/s, 2.5 GByte, 4:3 (MPEG-4)
Filmed at the festival d’Orange
Also available as audio recording
There is a cut in Act 2, Scene 2 of this performance: from “Dem Tage! Dem Tage!” (Tristan) to “dass nachtsichtig mein Auge wahres zu sehen tauge” (Tristan). [Jonathan Brown]