Tristan und Isolde

Daniel Barenboim
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
3-9 July 1995
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live   studio
  live compilation   live and studio
Tristan Siegfried Jerusalem
Isolde Waltraud Meier
Brangäne Uta Priew
Kurwenal Falk Struckmann
König Marke Matthias Hölle
Melot Poul Elming
Ein junger Seemann Poul Elming
Ein Hirt Peter Maus
Steuermann Sándor Sólyom-Nagy
Stage director Heiner Müller
Set designer Erich Wonder
TV director Horant H. Hohlfeld
Mostly Opera

Anyone still doubting whether Daniel Barenboim is the greatest living Wagner conductor are invited to start here.

In brief, Daniel Barenboim´s performance with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra in this performance of Tristan and Isolde is simply overwhelming. He surpasses even the most excessive expectations, even from those who, like me, have heard his Tristan on numerous previous occations. The sheer power, the magnificently disposed lines, the passion.

I have never heard his Tristan quite as glorious as here in Bayreuth 1995. Easily the best conducted of all available Wagner operas on DVD. And the best recorded Wagner performance from Daniel Barenboim as well (including the CDs). Well worth owning for that aspect alone.

This 1993 Bayreuth Festival production of Tristan and Isolde was initially to be directed by Patrice Chéreau, whose cancellation led to the appointment of Heiner Müller, widely acknowledged as the most important German dramatist in the 20th century after Bertold Brecht. This Tristan and Isolde was his first and only operatic production as he died in 1995. The production was seen at the Bayreuth Festival from 1993-9, with the 1993 premiere featuring role debuts for both Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem as Isolde and Tristan, respectively.

Truth be told, Heiner Müller´s staging, though beautiful and eerily aesthetic, is too passive for my taste. But admittedly, he does provide the ideal static background for the glorious orchestral sound to be cast upon, virtually unreflected.

Heiner Müllers approach to Tristan was highly intellectual and non-sentimental, explicitly aiming to rid the work of all hints of romanticism or overheated passion. But aren’t Tristan and Isolde so deeply in love that they can only come together in death? he once was asked. “Nonsense, Romanticism in the worst sense. Nobody really yearns for death,” said Heiner Müller.

Together with set designer Erich Wonder and costume designer Yamamoto (a Japanese fashion designer) they created a static and minimalistic production centered on geometrical shapes – cubicles and rectangles – with superimposed light effects projecting various colours and forms according to the changing moods.

The colours change from the golden-red spectre of Act 1 over the blue in Act 2 to the green-deep grey of Act 3. A closed rectangular space serves as the basic setting, being only slightly modified from Isolde´s 1st act ship space visualized as a sunken rectangle in the golden-red declining floor, to Act 2´s eerily misty blue space (graveyard?) covered with silvery breastplates, to the desolate shattered concrete spread out on the floor in the otherwise naked room of Act 3.

There is virtually no physical contact between the singers (including the love duet) who move in parallel orbits if not assuming frozen positions in artificial angles. The impression of stylized Japanese theater is hardly coincidental and emphasized by the colourful geometrical artworks projected during the preludes.

With such a tremendously brilliant orchestra there simply is no real need for scenery. But some attempts at creating drama on stage would nevertheless not have been ill-placed.

The DVD, as always at the Bayreuth Festival, was recorded in front of an empty theatre, though the audible warming-up of the orchestra alludes to a live performance, which it is not. Sound as well as picture is of very high quality and the slightly grained close-up shots are due to the use of transparent curtains to maximize the light effects.

Waltraud Meier is a truly glorious Isolde, this however not being the ideal production to showcase her immense acting skills and charisma. She seems constantly to restrain her expressions (undoubtedly at Heiner Müller´s instruction), and one wonders if she really feels at home in this production? To fully appreciate her radiance, one has to wait for the Barenboim/Patrice Chéreau production from La Scala. Vocally, however, she has never been better, and nevertheless manages to infuse some much-needed drama into the production. By a wide margin the leading Isolde on DVD.

Siegfried Jerusalem is also by a large margin the best Tristan on DVD, for once looking believable next to Waltraud Meier. If just the staging had given them more opportunity to interact dramatically.

In the supporting roles, both Uta Priew and Falk Struckmann acted and sang well (Struckmann not without a slightly irritating dryness to his voice). Matthias Hölle was actually quite fine as King Marke, not levelling with The true King Marke obviously, but nevertheless convincing. I wonder what ever happened to him, who seemed to be everywhere in the mid-90´s, as he must still be quite young?

Compared to Daniel Barenboim´s previous 1982 Bayreuth Tristan DVD in Ponnelle´s production, this performance is even better conducted. Which Tristan and Isolde DVD of these two to go for, I´d say is largely matter of taste. With the most obvious alternatives being the Lehnhoff Glyndebourne production with Nina Stemme or the Konwitschny production from Munich, also with Waltraud Meier. Until the Barenboim/Chéreau 2007 production from La Scala is released, that is.

Watch this to listen to Daniel Barenboim´s glorious conducting without being disturbed by irrelevant stage action. And to have the ideal Tristan and Isolde combination in Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem. Strongly recommended as my personal favourite.

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

Waltraud Meier: 5
Siegfried Jerusalem: 5
Uta Priew: 4
Falk Struckmann: 3
Matthias Hölle: 4

Heiner Müller´s production: 4
Daniel Barenboim: 5

Overall impression: 5

It must have been Wieland Wagner’s production of Tristan und Isolde in the 1960s that broke new ground for Wagner staging. It had Karl Böhm conducting and Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen as the protagonists. It was devoid of naturalistic props and fanciful ‘historical’ costumes with a peeled-off stage with evocative lighting creating the backdrop against which the slow-moving Handlung (story) unfolds. Folke Abenius and Jan Brazda worked along the same lines when they staged Wagner’s Ring in Stockholm a few years later; another successful recreation of what is after all a world of ideas.

For the present Tristan of 1993 Wolfgang Wagner chose director and radical playwright Heiner Müller with roots in the GDR. Patrice Chéreau, the man behind the famous and controversial Pierre Boulez conducted Bayreuth Ring from 1976, was the intended director. However he backed out, maintaining that ‘Tristan can’t be staged; it’s a radio play’. In close cooperation with set designer Erich Wonder, with whom he had been working before, and Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto he created something stylized and abstract. Only essentials are actually shown. In act I a sunken rectangle symbolises Isolde’s tent, in act II there are rows of breastplates filling the stage, looking initially like the empty seats in a theatre. Lighting is here used evocatively: red and yellow in act I, blue in act II, grey in act III. During the prelude – sensually played with glowing string tone – a decorative, non-figurative painting slowly moves across the screen. Not until the end of the prelude can one dimly discern human figures and the outline of a ship. Everything is blurred, like a dreamscape, beautiful in a distancing way, hypnotic. The great love duet in act II has very little visual action – it’s like a concert performance, which also tallies with Chéreau’s vision of a radio play. As in the new production of Tristan at the Estonian National Opera, which I reviewed for Seen and Heard a couple of months ago, there is also here a kind of alienation between the protagonists. They walk back and forth, eye-contact is limited. In a radio play or a CD recording of the work one can decide for oneself the characters’ facial expressions, movements and create one’s own images, governed by what one hears. In the theatre or in front of the TV screen one has no option. One is overwhelmed by the director’s view and the hypnosis works: one gets involved, embraced even, by the physical presence of the lovers, cool on the surface but glowing underneath. Isolde’s pale face and blood-red lips are explicit – they speak of carnal love.

As with Barenboim’s highly acclaimed Bayreuth Ring this Tristan was filmed and recorded in the opera house, not during actual performances, however, but before the festival and with plenty of opportunities to make corrections or retakes. In a way this is the best of two worlds. What is lacking is the actual thrill in performing before an audience. However for repeated listening and viewing it is a blessing to be spared stage noises. The quality of sound and pictures is superb and one can but wonder why it has been withheld for thirteen years. The answer is presumably that Barenboim recorded the opera on CD at around the same time in Berlin for Teldec with several of the same singers, including Meier, Jerusalem and Struckmann. He would otherwise have been competing with himself to the detriment of sales figures for both sets. I have only heard some bleeding chunks from that Teldec set and from what little I have heard it seems to be basically the same approach – naturally enough, considering the proximity in time. Barenboim’s credentials as a Wagnerian are well known and documented; he has recorded all ten operas in the normal canon. His Ring, whether on CD or DVD, ranks with the best. In this Tristan he steers a kind of ideal middle course between the eager forward-pushing of Böhm (Bayreuth 1966, DG) and Bernstein’s mesmerizing but sometimes almost unbearably drawn out reading (Philips). Barenboim never loses momentum, although he too can slow down considerably when he feels it is dramatically valid. There is stronger theatricality than with Bernstein.

When this production was mounted in 1993 all the soloists were making their Bayreuth role debuts and Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier were singing their parts for the first time anywhere. Two years later, when this DVD was filmed, they had achieved complete identification with their roles. The dreamlike atmosphere excludes more overtly expressed emotions but the inner glow – the radio play again! – is truly tangible. Jerusalem, who was a professional bassoon player for several years before he, through a whim of fortune, got the opportunity to stand in for an ailing singer, was in his early career a rather lyrical tenor, singing Tamino among other roles. On his debut recital for CBS (later Sony) he was already an accomplished Lohengrin and Walther von Stolzing. Gradually he expanded his repertoire to the heavier roles. He was Siegfried on Haitink’s EMI Ring around 1990 and also for Barenboim. Even though he never developed a gigantic voice of the Melchior kind or had the penetrating steely top notes of Set Svanholm, he had impressive stamina. What he lacked in volume and brilliance he compensated for with intelligence and sensitivity – features that are much in evidence on this set. Rarely have I heard such nuanced singing in this ‘voice-killer’ role. Where Wagner tries to swamp the poor hero with thick orchestral textures, Jerusalem still carries through – not by pressing the voice, as so many tenors have done with devastating results, but through intelligent projection. He is truly stunning in act III. Even more impressive is Waltraud Meier’s Isolde. Although being a mezzo-soprano she has an expansive upper register and there is no sense of her going beyond her natural limits. It is a glorious voice with true soprano ring. It is a beautiful voice and it is an expressive voice. Besides all this she has the looks to match the beauty of the voice. She caps her performance with a gloriously sung Mild und leise.

The other roles, demanding and important though they are, tend to be subordinated to those of the two lovers, but here they are cast from strength. Uta Priew, whom I once heard as a very good contralto soloist in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the Royal Festival Hall, is a dark and impressive Brangäne. Falk Struckmann a more ordinary Kurwenal. Poul Elming, Barenboim’s Siegmund, is grandiose casting for the young sailor. Matthias Hölle is a black and intense Marke.

I am still under the spell of the Glyndebourne Tristan with Nina Stemme’s marvellous Isolde and Robert Gambill’s manly and well projected Tristan (review). It was a Recording of the Month just a while ago and has all the attributes needed to become a classic version. Now comes this Barenboim-Müller production with an almost diametrically opposed approach. Thus far they are complementary rather than competing. Musically they are on a very high level and which one to prefer is a matter of personal taste. It is too early to know how well this Bayreuth version will stand the test of time but it definitely throws some new light on this captivating tale.

Göran Forsling

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720×480, 2.6 Mbit/s, 3.6 GByte, 5.1 ch (MPEG-4)