Tristan und Isolde

Jiří Kout
Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Date/Location
24/29 September 1993
NHK Hall Tokyo
Recording Type
  live   studio
  live compilation   live and studio
Cast
Tristan René Kollo
Isolde Gwyneth Jones
Brangäne Hanna Schwarz
Kurwenal Gerd Feldhoff
König Marke Robert Lloyd
Melot Peter Edelmann
Ein junger Seemann Clemens Bieber
Ein Hirt Uwe Peper
Steuermann Ivan Sardi
Stage director Götz Friedrich
Set designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen
TV director Shuji Fujii
Gallery
Reviews
Mike Richter

PRODUCTION

Live performance from Tokyo. Sets are simplistic and hypermodern, often inexplicable and seldom containing the elements Wagner specified either in particular or in gestalt. Costumes are drab, uncomplimentary, and undefined as to era or style. Stage movement is effective throughout, with Jones’ acting particularly notable. Friedrich’s concepts are confusing, opaque, or both; the effect is to compound the singers’ weaknesses in producing a poorly integrated performance which has few virtues to cite. PERFORMANCES

Kout leads a stolid performance which drags interminably during orchestral passages; the effect may be intended to be portentous, but reaches only the ponderous. The orchestra is admirable; the chorus is underrehearsed and imprecise. Jones and Kollo are both undervoiced and overaged for their rôles; after the first act, both bleat and shout instead of singing, and both display painful wobbles. Schwarz’s instrument is not as dark as one would prefer, but is used well. Feldhoff is remarkably unremarkable, making nothing of the rôle and singing the notes without inflection. Lloyd uses a fine instrument well, but Marke does not make Tristan. Minor rôles are filled routinely.

TECHNICAL COMMENTS

Video is reasonably sharp but consistently underlighted with exaggerated shadows to focus attention on the signs of the singers’ age. Monaural sound is clear and voices are well miked. Camera work is erratic: overly busy throughout, often directing attention to irrelevancies, and occasionally prey to the foibles of the production (e.g., ropes cutting across a soloist’s face, forcing an abrupt and inappropriate change of camera). The dark images, ugly sounds, and chaotic production preclude serious consideration of this performance.

Evaluation: Poor

MusicalCritism.com

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is relatively well represented on DVD, but this release is notable for being the only commercial account of the Isolde of the legendary dramatic soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones which is currently readily available.

Jones first performed Isolde in 1978, but this performance, given by the Deutsche Oper Berlin on tour to Japan, dates from 1993, almost 30 years after Jones hit the big time, substituting for an indisposed Leontyne Price at the Royal Opera as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore in 1964. It is probably fair to say that by 1978, Jones had already become a divisive singer, admired and loved by many for her incredible commitment to her roles and the refulgence of her singing, but criticised by others for her habit of swooping up to notes and her wide vibrato. As is the case with many great divas, those characteristics which made her such an individual singer became more pronounced with age and in this performance, they are impossible to ignore. That said, anybody who cherishes this artist, either because of or in spite of her idiosyncrasies, will find her in remarkably secure voice on this DVD.

Jones presents a very feminine Isolde, fearsome in her Act I curse of course, but vulnerable and wounded in spirit just as much as Tristan had been wounded in body in the story recounted in the narration. Jones explores all of Isolde’s complex motivations for her desire for death, hinting at an unrequited love for the hero she had nursed back to health just as strongly as the explicit grief she feels for her murdered betrothed. The accompanying thirst for vengeance and the terrible conflict in her heart that results from the situation are communicated with fervour. The abandon with which she extinguishes the flame in Act II and the reckless passion she brings to the love duet are breathtaking, both for her free flowing, enormous voice but also her dramatic conviction which makes one forget that she was in her late 50s when the performance was filmed. Her ‘Ha! Ich bins’ in Act III is extremely moving. Jones creates the emotional climax here, which sets up the ‘Liebestod’ magnificently, allowing Isolde to ride the orchestra with serenity and ease in her final few minutes, an effect which proves far more moving than the thrusting urgency which less experienced, or less vocally well endowed sopranos tend to engage in at this point. This Isolde’s transfiguration is dignified and incredibly profound.

As Tristan, René Kollo is also very impressive. Whilst a slight thickness in his timbre prevents him from ever quite achieving the line one might wish for, he definitely sings the whole role without straining or barking at any point. He is passionate and accomplished throughout, but in Act III he becomes really compelling, exploring Tristan’s delirium with vocal and dramatic freedom. He appears to have been well directed by Götz Friedrich, in that he doesn’t fall into the trap of playing up the wound and remaining fixed in one position. Instead, he is always free to express and deliver one of the most strenuous passages in all opera in sympathetic circumstances.

Kollo is also very well supported in Act III by the conducting of Jiří Kout, who always ensures the tempi are congenial to the singers. There are moments in the score, particularly in Act III, where I feel an ideal interpretation does have a sense of stasis about it, and this is lacking in this performance, but it is something that may only be achievable in the recording studio. In the context of a live performance, any but the very greatest Tristan needs to feel the forward momentum at all times to avoid vocal melt-down, and this is what Kout provides. Kout also manages to keep a tight rein on the Act II love duet, achieving a thrilling climax without allowing matters to get too frantically out of hand. If Kout’s overall interpretation is perhaps not one for the ages, it certainly seems to be designed to get the best out of the singers, which is the right way to prioritise a live performance of an opera with such arduous central roles.

The production is fairly traditional, in that the settings for each act as described in the text are clearly invoked, but as is typical of many Wagner stagings, the minimalism of Wieland Wagner’s post-war Bayreuth productions appears to have influenced Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets. There does appear to be a bit of detail on stage, but one can scarcely see it on the screen because the lighting, by Olaf-Siegfried Stolzfuss, which may have been very effective in the theatre, creates a somewhat crepuscular gloom for most of the action. Still, reservations about the production are not grave concerns in a piece which, above all, is about personal relationships as opposed to spectacle. The camera work is slightly frustrating because it doesn’t always pan out for a full view of the stage for key events, and in this particular opera, events are relatively few and far between. But the focus on the singers’ faces during their lengthy discourses is welcome.

All of the remaining roles are well taken, particularly the imposing, if not especially probing King Marke of Robert Lloyd, and the Brangäne of Hanna Schwarz, which must be one of the finest performances of the role on record. There is nothing about the staging which offends, and Kout creates a musical environment in which his singers can shine. For the extremely satisfying Tristan of Kollo, and the magnificent, searing Isolde of Jones, this is a most welcome release of one of the greatest of all operas.

John Woods

Mostly Opera

Götz Friedrich´s 1980 Tristan and Isolde (which may still be seen at the Deutsche Oper) is simple, traditional and very aesthetic, with the directorial focus on the relationship between the protagonists. A wooden ship, a garden, a stony bridge among rocks. Contrasting lights are used to great effect, best is the discovery scene where King Marke and his men approach the suddently illuminated couple on a wooden bride above the ”garden”.

There is an effusive air of romantic middle age to this production, quite similar to that of Ponnelle´s 1982 Tristan from the Bayreuth Festival. Unfortunately, this is where the similarities between theses two productions end:

The protagonists are simply way past their prime and the major draw-back of the production is Gwyneth Jones´ wobbly Isolde, captured at a point where her wobble has become intolerable. Gwyneth Jones has had a long and distinguished careeer, and in the 60´s and 70´s she was very exciting – but she simply continued singing this repertoire way too long: This Isolde is one example, her Ortrud in Paris 1996 was even worse.

At the time of this recording, Gwyneth Jones was 56 and René Kollo 55. Kollo is slightly less offensive than Jones, but still a shadow of his 1982 performance in the Bayreuth Barenboim/Ponnelle production. As for the others: Hanna Schwarz remains a fine Brangäne, though vastly better in the previously mentioned Ponnelle production as well. Robert Lloyd is a dramatically convincing King Marke, his peculiar nasal singing apart.

Jiri Kout is a competent conductor, but predictably fades compared to Daniel Barenboim.

For those wanting a Tristan with a “traditional” staging, the recently released DVD Tristan from the Bayreuth Festival 1982 in Ponnelles production conducted by Daniel Barenboim is recommended as it is superior at every single point.

The bottom line:

Gwyneth Jones: 1
René Kollo: 2
Hanna Schwarz: 3
Robert Lloyd: 3

Jiri Kout: 3

Götz Friedrich´s staging: 3-4

Overall impression: 2

MusicWeb-International.com

What a relief to view a staging so free of directorial konzept. This rather 1960s production is clear and uncontroversial. It is also well, if not perfectly, sung by Kollo and Jones. The orchestra are predictably excellent and the conductor Jiři Kout does not deserve the booing I believe I heard during the final curtain-calls. He paces this gigantic masterwork such that the playing time is just a few minutes under four hours, quicker than Barenboim, Karajan and Furtwängler who all break the four hour barrier.

The staging of all three acts uses the same basic structure; a long curved runway from back to front of the stage with sufficient space beneath to serve variously as the lower deck of the ship and the entrance to the castle, as well as the garden of Act 2. Lighting and gauzes along with minimal props all help to suggest the various scenes in a semi-realistic but unobtrusive manner. The very opening establishes a key aspect of the production, members of the cast stand around in statuesque poses, and either inwardly contemplate or look into the distance; thus my comment about a 1960s feel to it all. This would not have been out of place at Bayreuth during that decade. The only moments of significant activity are the two brief battles in Acts 2 and 3. The latter was closest to the risible because Melot appeared rather cartoonish; apart from this it all looked appropriately serious.

The singing ranges from excellent to discomforting. René Kollo slowly tires as the performance progresses and by Act 3 he is decidedly wobbly and approximate about pitch. At his best, earlier on, he is wonderful and looks, well, Tristanesque. Gwyneth Jones follows a similar pattern and does sound exhausted, maybe appropriately, by the time the liebestod arrives. She too wobbles and loses pitch accuracy. The pair tend to come in under the note and this gets more obvious as the performance progresses. However, this is a massive work and both singers are so experienced that even singing below their best they are impressive. It would be a stony-hearted viewer who is not moved by the end.

Robert Lloyd’s King Mark is much more accurately and powerfully sung, but the role is a great deal shorter. Hanna Schwarz is magnificent in voice and operatic acting as Brangäne and is possibly the best singer in this performance.

Technically the sound of this single Blu-ray disc is very good and the twenty-year-old high-definition recording is pretty good. It lacks the clarity of more recent recordings but it satisfies. The insert has an essay and synopsis plus a list of access points. However, the menu system is the normal inadequate creation leaving one unable to use those points from the main screen. I am sure no one is expected to watch the entire 233 minutes in one sitting so why not have at least three entry points for the acts available without resorting to the player remote and a drop-down menu? The answer is that the finalising of these issues involves an automated system and probably no human intervention. Even if a person is involved they are not opera-goers. The subtitles are very full. Though with reference to the English titles, I am not sure how much help they are during the lengthy Schopenhauerian dissertations that Wagner sets. A considerable amount of this libretto consists of tropes of doubtful logic; but one can turn them off or shut one’s eyes. There are mighty bravos accompanying the final credits as various members of cast come front of curtain. What a pity the video director did not match all these cheers with actual curtain-calls. Instead, after a few entries, we get an ecstatic audience cheering an empty stage and an unmoving red curtain; what a pity.

Overall one cannot shake off the feeling that this performance represents a sort of last gasp of Wagnerian traditionalism. After more than three hours of stiff leather jerkins and impressive long robes and dresses I began to yearn for more passion and movement. Wagner’s great score needs to boil and be matched by the acting. Staggering around, at which both main protagonists are very good, is no longer enough. Do I detect the need for more of a konzept after all? Oh dear.

Dave Billinge

Opera News

This 1993 Tristan is marked by solid professionalism. It features a cast of veteran Wagnerians, all performing with consummate authority. Götz Friedrich’s production offers a solid, straightforward take on the opera; the forces of Deutsche Oper Berlin, on tour in Tokyo, perform expertly under the sure baton of Jiří Kout. It would be easy to regard this performance as simply a display of sturdy competence, but ultimately it becomes something more: its seriousness of approach allows Tristan itself to emerge in its transcendent glory.

Friedrich had a reputation as an iconoclast, but his take on Tristan is essentially traditional. Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s set design, mixing representational elements with neo-Bayreuth abstraction, is thoroughly mainstream, and not dissimilar to his work at the Met on the 1971 August Everding production. The only real moment of revisionism comes when the hunting party disrupts the lovers: floodlights pierce the stage, and Melot enters in a storm-trooper’s coat — anachronisms that tell us the idyll has truly been shattered. Elsewhere, the staging is marked by its restraint, especially during the great duet, when the lovers stay fixed in place: Friedrich seems to understand that no stage business could possibly enhance the overwhelming drama created by the music itself. (The performance takes the traditional “big cut” in Act II between Tristan’s entrance and the Liebesnacht — a mercy for the singers and, arguably, the audience.)

By 1993, the stars of this performance, René Kollo and Gwyneth Jones, were both nearing the end of their many years in Wagner; their singing here displays the wear and tear of their long experience, along with the wisdom gained in the process. Even though Kollo’s tone had coarsened over the decades, one can still hear his lyric-tenor roots, along with the metal that allowed him to tackle the heldentenor repertory. His work is strong, if somewhat stolid, in the first two acts. But his Act III is a revelation, with the mammoth back-to-back monologues delivered with unflagging energy, intensity and stamina. True, he can’t summon Melchior-like honey at the end of the marathon for “Wie sie selig.” Nonetheless, his epic reading of the scene brings Wagner’s drama to vivid, searing light.

I witnessed Jones’s Isolde at the Met in 1981 — a portrayal so vocally chaotic that I swore never again to attend one of her performances and pigheadedly stuck to my vow. Her work on this video makes me regret my intransigence. The air-raid-siren wobble that could invade her sustained tones is only marginally present here. Her lower range tends to be dry and unresponsive, but the sound in the upper reaches increases in luster as the performance proceeds. Jones’s indistinct treatment of the text makes her paint in broad strokes; the role emerges in great whooshes of dramatic-soprano sound. But this is a rapt, committed portrayal, with singing on a scale to match Wagner’s intentions.

Hanna Schwarz, utterly idiomatic, is the Brangäne, her portrayal marred only by unsteadiness during the Watch. Gerd Feldhoff’s sound can get gruff under pressure, but he is an achingly sympathetic Kurwenal. The superlative Marke is Robert Lloyd, focused in voice and in artistic intention.

The video is presented in wide-screen 16:9 format, though I suspect it was originally taped in the then-standard ratio of 4:3 (it pops up that way in some YouTube excerpts), then cropped for this release. Perhaps this is why the image looks so washed out, even on Blu-ray. (It would also explain why Tristan’s head drops out of the frame at the moment of his death.) The sound, though, is top-notch, giving a real sense of Kout’s splendid reading. The work’s big moments register with terrific impact, but the conductor binds them into the great span of Wagner’s musical argument. Even as a home-viewing experience, the performance feels like an immense journey, and at its end, the Liebestod unfolds with truly cathartic effect — a tribute to the performers and director, but most of all to Wagner’s extraordinary imagination.

FRED COHN

Rating
(6/10)
User Rating
(3/5)
Media Type/Label
TDK, Kultur, Arthaus Musik
Arthaus Musik
Technical Specifications
1920×1040, 8.5 Mbit/s, 13 GByte, 5.1 ch (MPEG-4)
Remarks
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]