~ Author: Oberon
I spotted this DVD of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE on the shelf at the Library of the Performing Arts. The production is from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, filmed on tour at Tokyo in 1993. It stars Dame Gwyneth Jones and Rene Kollo (photo above), two veteran Wagner specialists who were in their mid-50s at the time. During a few days of break from live opera and symphonic performances, I watched this TRISTAN one act at a time on three successive days of bitter cold weather. Despite flaws, I found it to be a moving experience.
TRISTAN is an opera that took me a long time to embrace. Following my first live performance of it - the thrilling prima of a new production at The Met in 1973 with Birgit Nilsson and Jess Thomas in the name roles - I still found myself shying away from repeated viewings. It was the Dieter Dorn/Jürgen Rose Met production that finally brought me under the spell of this great opera; unfortunately, that gorgeous setting has since been discarded for a tedious updated production - set on a 20th-century battle cruiser - that makes little dramatic sense. Who knows when I'll see TRISTAN in the theatre again?
On the DVD, I found the Deutsche Oper's simple and spare Götz Friedrich production serviceable - though lacking in poetry - in the first two acts. There's a lot of standing about, but perhaps that's the nature of the piece. One exciting moment comes at the close of the Liebesnacht, when the stage is flooded with light at King Marke's return. And I was deeply moved that it is Kurwenal, not Isolde, who collapses in despair over the mortally wounded Tristan as the curtain falls on Act II.
In the third act, the production reaches its zenith. On an outcropping of rock at Castle Kareol, bathed in silvery light from a desolate sun, Tristan lies near death. During the long scene between Tristan and his faithful retainer Kurwenal, the relationship between the two men has never seemed so poignant (this is thanks in part to Gerd Feldhoff's splendid acting as Kurwenal). Isolde arrives, her auburn hair now streaming loose, and seeks to revive her lover. The confusion of the arrival of the second ship is well-handled: Kurwenal slays Melot, but then he too meets his death. King Marke's lamenting words are unheeded by Isolde, who has left earthly matters behind.
Maestro Jiří Kout shapes the yearning prelude thoughtfully; his conducting throughout the long opera manages to be both passionate and respectful of the singers. At curtain-rise, Clemens Bieber's singing of the Sailor's plaintive song is very effective.
Dame Gwyneth Jones, possessor of one of the biggest voices ever unleashed in an opera house, shows off that power to fine effect when she chooses; but much of the music is quietly and expressively sung, displaying the soprano's incredible control. Her highest notes are steady and strong. Annoyingly and inexplicably, the filming continually shows us Tristan rather than Isolde during her Act I Narrative and Curse. While Dame Gwyneth looks rather mature - the costuming in Acts I and II is a bit dowdy - she is entirely credible. Her Liebestod is not vocally perfect, but it moved me deeply. A year after this performance was filmed, I saw the soprano as Elektra at The Met where her singing had staggering force and brilliance.
Rene Kollo's experienced Tristan is cannily sung; his tone can display a steady beat, but he is nonetheless vocally persuasive throughout. His third act is truly impactful; passing moments of vocal strain can be overlooked in view of the power and commitment of Kollo's singing and acting.
Hanna Schwarz, Chereau's Fricka and a splendid Met Klytemnestra in 1999 and 2002, is a bewitching Brangaene; her voice is lyrical yet well-pointed. Ms. Schwarz, slender and graceful, appears to have materialized from out of the Mists of Avalon. Magnificent singing, awash with heartbreak, sets Robert Lloyd among the finest of King Markes.
I've seen some mighty impressive Kurwenals in my day, but I think Gerd Feldhoff (above) takes the prize - not only for his the clumsy sincerity of his declarations of love for and loyalty to Tristan, but also for his truly beautiful and moving vocalism. His performance makes the third act unforgettable.
Maestro Kout gives us an expressive rendering of the "Wesendonck" prelude to Act III. Also making a strong mark in the final act are the superb English horn player, tenor Uwe Peper's crippled and touchingly voiced Shepherd, and Ivan Sardi's Steersman.
Peter Edelmann, whose father Otto was an iconic Baron Ochs, beams with smug self-satisfaction as he betrays Tristan: a small but telling bit of characterization.
I'll be returning to this DVD in future, for so many reasons.