Tristan und Isolde

Bertrand de Billy
Cor i Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona
15/26 June 2002
Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanJohn Treleaven
IsoldeDeborah Polaski
BrangäneLioba Braun
KurwenalFalk Struckmann
König MarkeEric Halfvarson
MelotWolfgang Rauch
Ein junger SeemannFrancisco Vas
Ein HirtFrancisco Vas
SteuermannMichael Vier
Stage directorAlfred Kirchner
Set designerAnnette Murschetz
TV directorToni Bargalló
Mostly Opera

Ironically, director Alfred Kirchner states in the accompanying leaflet that “the main strength of the drama derives basically from the people on stage. Drama is, and will remain, the experience of human behaviour”. Well said, but apparently easier said than done: The overwhelming weakness of this Tristan production, in my opinion, is exactly the lack of drama between the protagonists.

The sets are simple: The grey interior of a ship with a quadrangular view of the sea, where a Loch Ness-like monster curiously appears during the Love Potion scene in Act 1; a disintegrated room (symbolizing the lovers state of mind?) in act 2; and a similarly bare room with concrete walls in Act 3. Kirchner tells the story relatively straight forward as stated in the libretto, with a couple of minor exceptions, most notably that both Tristan and Kurwenal kill themselves and the opera ends with Isolde gazing out into the black night.

The problem here, as well as in his recently released Götterdämmerung from Bayreuth is that there are no apparent interactions between the protagonists. Admittedly, neither Deborah Polaski nor John Treleaven are the most engaging of stage personalities, and particularly Polaski seem rather dry-voiced and unengaged. Treleaven visibly makes an effort, it just doesn´t amount to much. Lioba Braun infuses some life into the production with her both well sung and well acted Brangäne, but unfortunately the Tristan-Isolde relationship has to work on some level to make this opera work as a whole. Eric Halfvarson is dramatically convincing, but vocally unconvincing as Marke, which also applies to Falk Struckmann, not caught in his best voice. But then, Falk Struckmann´s voice has always been significantly better in the theater than on record, which unfortunately does not help the potential buyers of this DVD. Bertrand de Billy furthermore conducts a respectable, though not spectacular performance.

Whether inclined towards traditional or non-traditional performances of Tristan and Isolde there are several other DVDs on the market, which I´d recommend before this one, most notably the 2007 Chéreau/Barenboim production and the Barenboim/Müller production from Bayreuth 1995. For the more traditionally inclined, the Barenboim-Ponnelle 1982 Bayreuth production is very beautiful and with superb conducting and singing as well. The 2007 Glyndebourne Lehnhoff production may be worth taking a look at, with fine performances, though in a static production.

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

John Treleaven: 2
Deborah Polaski: 3
Lioba Braun: 3-4
Falk Struckmann:3
Eric Halfvarson: 2-3

Kirchners production: 2-3

Bertrand de Billy: 3

Overall impression: 2-3

My two favorite Wagner operas are probably Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde. It’s always tough making such choices, since I could just as well throw a couple of the Ring operas into contention, like Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. In the end, though, it is probably Tristan which has left the most lasting mark, not only on me but perhaps on Western music, as well. But I don’t listen to Wagner’s influence; I listen to his music.

This Tristan is certainly a worthwhile effort, one in which the balance of power – or, shall I say?, the balance of vocal art – is rather even between the two principals here, Deborah Polaski and John Treleaven. I read one review on the web that was not favorable to Treleaven, but quite praiseworthy of Polaski. While Treleaven may not possess a gorgeous voice, he makes a quite compelling Tristan here, both vocally and dramatically. He reminds me a bit of Jon Vickers, not that his voice is similar to that long – retired Canadian tenor’s. Indeed, but both have (or had, in the case of Vickers) a less than ravishing vocal instrument, and yet both have made the most of it. I can say I have few complaints about Treleaven’s Tristan here – he is brilliant, if a bit inconsistent in places.

Deborah Polaski is also stunning in her portray of Isolde. Her Mild und leise is one of the finest ever. You have to hear it to believe it! It almost obliterates your impression of the secondary roles in the opera, almost obliterates everything that precedes it, in fact. But Erik Halfvarson’s King Marke is certainly compelling as are Lioba Braun’s Brangäne and Falk Struckmann’s Kurwenal.

Bertrand de Billy conducts with a knowing sense for the building tension and passion in this Wagner masterpiece, drawing fine playing from his Barcelona players throughout. The sound is very good, though a bit bass heavy at times. The production features rather barren – looking but hauntingly atmospheric and darkish sets, generally with imaginative lighting. The characters are attired in quaintly modern styles, but their appearance is not distracting. The camera work is fine, and all other production values are high. While there have been many fine Tristans (including the Vickers – which featured Helga Dernesch as Isolde and had Karajan on the podium), this one must be counted among the stronger efforts. Recommended.

Robert Cummings


There are two very good reasons to buy this DVD set of Alfred Kirchner’s production for Netherlands Opera, filmed over two performances at the Liceu in June 2002. The first is Deborah Polaski’s Isolde, her only recording of the role; the second, an overwhelmingly powerful, well-paced Act 3. Of the current Isoldes, Polaski is easily in the same league as Waltraud Meier. Her first act is marvellous: she conveys the agony of Isolde’s situation in singing of meticulous clarity and acting of considerable force; and it helps no end that she looks every imperious inch the wronged Irish princess. She whips up a terrific storm of impatient longing at the start of Act 2, does not let the tension slip in her lament immediately after Tristan’s death, and delivers a secure, finely shaded and phrased, transcendent Liebestod. It is an intelligent, passionate and very musical performance.

John Treleaven’s Tristan in Act 1 reminded me a bit of his rather dry and hard concert performances in London a couple of years ago, but he warms up considerably in Act 2, and by Act 3 is on top tragic form, singing (not barking) Tristan’s delirium with unflagging force and accuracy. He is well served by Falk Struckmann’s Kurwenal— the fairly high tessitura sits comfortably in his voice—and the chemistry between the two was all the more touching and welcome after his rather stand-anddeliver Act 1. Lioba Braun’s Brangaene is well sung, her Ilabet Acht’ in Act 2 finely done, but there’s little of the charge between her and Isolde that there was, for example, in ENO’s and Glyndebourne’s recent productions—a pity, because it can add a great deal to both roles. Erik Halfvarson is a strong Marke and makes the role blend in with the drama. The sailor and shepherd are sweetly and lyrically sung by Francisco Vas, and there is an impressive Melot from Wolfgang Rauch. Kirchner’s direction favours the singers, and, as it were, listens to the music. Annette Murschetz’s set for Act 1 looks like the deck of a navy battleship—the film rather annoyingly doesn’t give us an overall view of it; her Act 2 set, a fallen tree that bursts surreally into flames, a rather nasty patch of Astroturf for the lovers’ grassy bank, and some twinkly stars, is OK but not hugely evocative; her Act 3 set, however, is bleak and beautifully lit, and suits the music very well. Bertrand de Billy’s conducting gives this teeming score plenty of room to breathe and there is some lovely, detailed playing. All in all, a significant Tristan.

PETER REEDP | May 2006

Opera Today

I should probably preface my reaction to this release by confessing to the heretical belief, at least from a Wagnerian perspective, that Tristan und Isolde is not really a stageworthy opera.

Of course it’s wonderful to hear it performed live (if performed at all well). But I have yet to be persuaded that the work really benefits much from a dramatic staging, or at least, I have yet to see a really convincing staging. The recent semi-staged, semi-concert production directed by Peter Sellars with video installations by Bill Viola seen in Los Angeles, Paris, and elsewhere seems like maybe the best compromise with the unreasonable dramatic demands of the piece, if not a perfect solution in every respect. The opera should also be susceptible to the hyper-stylized slow-motion idiom of Robert Wilson. But in most respects it simply defies anything like naturalistic acting, and most sets –– whether traditionally representational, modernly abstract, or postmodernly deconstructive –– end up feeling oppressively inert in the face of the passionate, internalized musical-psychological “inaction” of the drama. So much is happening in the music, even in the text (after a fashion), but how to show it?

All the same, one can do better by Tristan on stage than this Barcelona production directed by Alfred Kirchner with sets by Annette Murschetz (first staged in Holland by De Nederlanse Opera). Three of the performances are top-flight: Deborah Polaski’s Isolde, Falk Struckmann’s Kurwenal, and Erik Halfvarson’s King Mark. Lioba Braun is also a vocally well-equipped and dramatically engaged as Brangäne, whereas John Treleavan struggles in both regards –– a noble struggle, but a struggle all the same. Conductor Betrand de Billy coaxes a more than creditable performance from the orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, forceful and nuanced in all the right places, and displays sensitivity to the vocalists in terms of balance and dramatic gesture. But a better than average, even good, performance with well engineered sound does not necessarily constitute a selling point for DVD format (granted, I was not able to sample the DTS surround-sound audio option).

I look forward to the day when opera directors will finally get over the idea that dingy modern-industrial spaces lend a special new relevance to “stuffy old” operas. This time Isolde has more than usual reason to sulk and fume in Act 1, having been confined to a prison-like berth somewhere in the hold of a hulking freighter. It does convey well enough a sense of her helpless, indeed immobilized condition as a captive on the ship that bears her to Cornwall, and the glimpses of the ocean surface occasionally projected above and behind this space offer an appropriate foil. At the moment Tristan and Isolde imbibe the love/death potion several blackbirds are seen, in silhouetted profile, winging their way over the waves. Not only a welcome contrast to the dismal, static quality of most of the act, it is also a nicely poetic touch, suggesting the freedom both characters believe to have won in death, and at the same time the baleful quality of the love that has suddenly been released.

Such freedom is exchanged for a peculiar enclosure (contrary to Wagner’s notion of a deep, enveloping night) in Act 2. Isolde awaits Tristan inside a dark, deconstructed shed of some sort, looking through a door to the outside. A large steel ladder leads up to Brangäne’s lookout, and at the front of the stage there sits (vaguely Walküre-like) an overturned tree with burning branches and a large rectangular slab of sod, or Astroturf. The fallen tree (shades also of the Ring’s “world ash-tree”?) with its several gas-jets, in place of the signal-torch, is merely a distraction throughout the opening scene. (Why is it there? Why is it sideways? How do the branches burn if the tree is otherwise living? How will Isolde put out the fires? – Quite effortlessly, in the event.) Part way through the lyric apotheosis of “Sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe” the upper reaches of this dark room do yield to a starry night sky –– indeed rather like the effect of Hunding’s hut opening up to the spring night for the love-duet of Siegmund and Sieglinde –– and the front stage lights dim to a silvery blue. One wishes that lighting designer Jean Kalman had made better use of the opportunities for dramatic and symbolic lighting effects in Tristan, one of the few areas in which it is theatrically generous. Still, this central scene is the one of the most effectively realized episodes, as Tristan and Isolde lie blissfully suspended below the stars on their slice of Astroturf. Vocally it is a different matter, since Treleaven has some truly awful moments (pretty much any time he sustains a note in the top fifth of his range). As if truly remorseful, he partially redeems himself in the following scene when expressing his sorrow to King Marke in some phrases of genuinely beautiful pianissimo, full of melancholy pathos and delicacy (for example, at “das kannst du nie erfahren”).

Act 3 is set in an empty observation tower with low ceiling and expressionistic angles, sparely and effectively enough conceived. (When the camera looks through the long vertical apertures facing out to the left, however, the lighting scheme becomes confused: is it light or dark out there? Otherwise Toni Bargallò’s camera work is thoughtful, varied, and well paced.) This act offers a welcome chance to hear Struckmann, as Kurwenal, in a more lyrical, expressive mode, in contrast to the bluff heartiness of the part in Act 1. Treleaven fares somewhat better as the stressed, delirious Tristan of Act 3 than as the ecstatic lover of Act 2. Both the young tenor shepherd and his English horn are capably performed, and unlike Brangäne’s watch-song in Act 2, the shepherd’s “pipe” is placed close enough to the stage (or microphones?) that we can appreciate the sound. On the whole, like Tristan, we spend most of this Act waiting for Isolde to arrive so that Tristan can die and she can sing her Liebestod. The actual moment of Tristan’s death is nicely realized, as he reaches out to Isolde, standing in the windowsill, but passes by her and sinks to his knees, overcome by a strange terminal ecstasy. (De Billy paces the episode beautifully, as well). Polaski delivers a splendid Liebestod, and what’s more, she knows how to “act” Wagner’s stylized poetic rhetoric with appropriate movements and facial expressions. Kalman’s simple lighting of this last sequence, gradually spotlighting her head and hands before fading to dark purple shadows, is another visual high point in a mostly lackluster staging.

The major assets of this production, then, are Polaski and Struckmann, as well as a fine performance by the Liceu orchestra under De Billy. Erik Halfvarson has a deep and sonorous bass adequate to Marke’s role, but I found his diction somewhat wooly. The singers are costumed in more or less shapeless robes or long jackets which once and a while seem to hamper their movements. Among recent versions available on DVD, the Bayreische Staatsoper performance (1999) of Peter Konwitschny’s production offers a somewhat better matched leading pair (Jon Frederic West and Waltraud Meier), though only Meier’s Isolde and Kurt Moll’s King Marke offer significant competition. Konwitschny direction is more imaginative, even somewhat jokey in the first act, though his final act resembles Kirchner’s in a number of details. If the Sellars/Viola video-concert staging were to come out on DVD with a suitable cast (like Christine Brewer, who sang Isolde in Los Angeles), that would by my first choice among newer productions.

Thomas S. Grey

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Opus Arte
Technical Specifications
848×480, 784 kbit/s, 1.4 GByte (MPEG-4)