Saturday, September 17, 2016

Thielemann's 2015 Tristan from Bayreuth on BluRay/DVD

Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

Stephen Gould (Tristan),
Evelyn Herlitzius (Isolde),
Georg Zeppenfeld (König Marke),
Iain Paterson (Kurwenal)
Raimund Nolte (Melot)
Christa Mayer (Brangäne)
Tansel Akzeybek (Ein Hirt)
Kay Stiefermann (Ein Steuermann)
Tansel Akzeybek (Junger Seemann)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Christian Thielemann (conductor)
Katharina Wagner (stage director)

Deutsche Grammophon BluRay 00440 073 5254

This splendid production of Tristan und Isolde, recorded live at the Bayreuth Festival in 2015, is the first issue in a multi-year collaboration between Deutsche Grammophon and the Bayreuth Festival, which will see the label exclusively releasing new productions at the Festpielhaus. On the strength of this recording, this initiative is looking most promising. Katharina Wagner and Christian Thielemann have produced one of the most satisfying Tristans in recent years.

Purists may balk at Katharina Wagner’s production, but (on this occasion) I have little sympathy with them. If there is a concept to the production, it is Fate and Necessity. No potion is needed for the first embrace between Tristan and Isolde in Act 1, for example – they fall into each other’s arms as soon as they see each other, and in Act II Mark and his men are plainly in view above the stage, so that their eventual appearance is more of an inevitable consequence of the great duet than a surprise. The production is revisionist, but in a thoughtful way plainly intended to illuminate the drama rather than to score political or other points.

During the Prelude the camera takes the viewer on a tour of the set, which for Act 1 is the interior of a ship – all metal stairs and railings. Usually I actively dislike visuals during the Prelude, but here they work well, with camera angles used to good effect. The lighting designer (Richard Traub) is the star of the production in Act II, where the torch is a spotlight and Tristan and Isolde sing ‘O sink herneider’ against a backdrop of avatars walking into pools of light (with the avatars turning into little children at Brangäne’s entrance). Lighting is also very important during Tristan’s delirious monologue in Act III, where Isolde is a constant on-stage presence in a triangle of light, constantly disappearing only to reappear in different places and elevations. It is very imaginative and also (not to give anything away) on occasion macabre.

Stephen Gould is a terrific Tristan. He sings with great delicacy in Act II after the arrival of Mark and his men, and offers a commanding performance in Act III. There is currently no shortage of heldentenors who can belt out a heroic-sounding Tristan, but few with Gould’s combination of powerful projection, expressiveness, and careful phrasing. He is well matched in all these respects by Evelyn Herlitzius’s Isolde, who enters ferociously in Act 1 and sings with great intensity throughout. Herlitzius does not have the most classically beautiful voice, but nor did a number of the great Wagner sopranos of the past. She acts and sings with power, plainly living her role.

König Marke has not been done any favors by the costume designer (Thomas Kaiser), and I was not convinced by his dragging Isolde off-stage in the closing bars. But the role is sung very well by George Zeppenfeld, who strikes the right balance between anger, grief, and resignation. The other two principal roles are very well sung – Iain Paterson as Kurwenal and Christa Mayer as Brangäne.

There are not many Wagner conductors who rank with Christian Thielemann when he is on form, as he most definitely is in this performance. The Act I Prelude is rich and dramatic and sets up a flow and pace that the Orchester der Bayreuther Festpielhaus maintains throughout. Thielemann maintains the balance between orchestra and soloists, not just in “showpieces” such as ‘Mild und leise’ but also (and even more tellingly) in busy scenes such as the arrival of König Marke and his men in Act III. The orchestra maintains a high level of dramatic movement, even though the characters are actually standing still on the stage. The ending is beautifully placed.

All in all, I was very enthusiastic about this first production on first hearing and subsequent listening confirmed first impressions. The sound and audio quality on the BluRay are excellent (I listened in PCM stereo, but DTS 5.0 is also included). Highly recommended.