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Wagner: Tristan und Isolde / Storey, Meier, Barenboim

Wagner / Meier / Storey / Salminen / Barenboim
Release Date: 01/13/2009 
Label:  Warner Classics   Catalog #: 19315  
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Performer:  Matti SalminenWill HartmannGerd GrochowskiIan Storey,   ... 
Conductor:  Daniel Barenboim
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Teatro alla Scala OrchestraMilan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Stage Director: Patrice Chéreau

Audio: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.0
Subtitles: English, Français, Deutsch, Italiano, Español

Recorded on December 7, 2007, this commemorates Daniel Barenboim's conducting debut at La Scala, Milan, at the helm of the opera he probably knows best, Tristan und Isolde. There are an astonishing 10 complete versions of this opera available on DVD; three of them are led by Barenboim and three of them star Waltraud Meier. What is an opera lover with a spare 30 or 40 dollars (or more) to do?

Putting aside the somewhat abbreviated, minimalist, 1973 production with Nilsson and Vickers that everyone must own despite its technical shortcomings (mediocre picture
Read more and sound) and the Liceu show with Deborah Polaski in an ugly, claustrophobic production with a truly bad Tristan, each has something to offer and also something to rue.

Meier certainly is in fresher voice in 1999 under Mehta, but the production (from Munich) is grotesquely modern (Tristan watches, grinning, as Isolde sings her Liebestod), and the Tristan is even worse than at the Liceu. Meier is even better under Barenboim from 1995, but we get to look at designs that are like paintings by Rothko or Albers rather than anything that evokes a setting. But let's get to this one.

The conducting is simply gorgeous, with a true sense of yearning, sensible tempos (it never drags or rushes), utter lack of eccentricities (nothing is done for the sake of "affect"), a combination of warmth and sadness that is all-pervasive, an ability to balance orchestra and voices so that there's never a struggle, an ebb-and-flow that is both graceful and heavy, and an overall eloquence that makes the best possible case for this grand work. When the mania of the opening of Act 2 gives way to the dreaminess of the Love Duet, it's almost like Debussy. The La Scala forces, playing the work for the first time since 1978, are at their most inspired and alert, using an Italianate legato that is welcome and ravishing. It is a more complete picture of the opera than either of Barenboim's other DVD performances, and that's saying a lot.

Many observers who know and care about such things consider Waltraud Meier to be the world's greatest Isolde and Kundry; I would agree if beauty or quality of voice did not matter so much. Yes, she is a great actress and a beautiful woman, sensationally insightful; her reactions are as honest and "real" as her actions. She presents a complete character--enraged, loving, obsessed, filled with sorrow and then seen in a state of almost incredible grief.

But her voice, never lovely, is now truly unreliable. I've put up with her "unlovely" (let's say) singing for years because the voice has plenty of character, but now each phrase carries a new awful surprise. There are about seven reliable notes in her range, those that can do whatever she'd like. The others are sometimes shrill, sometimes flat, sometimes just truly unpleasant. Anything above high-A is open season for squeaks or squawks. And she flattens during the Liebestod and ends it on a truly sour F-sharp. Opera remains first and foremost about voice, and Meier's is failing her more and more. She now officially gets an A for artistry and a C for sound.

Ian Storey, singing Tristan for the first time (I believe), has a good-sized voice, with a nice baritonal bottom, which, if not entirely memorable, is stageworthy and potent. He observes Wagner's dynamic markings scrupulously and thereby gets through the role without yelling or straining. Indeed, a bit more wildness in the last act would have been welcome: Storey is somewhat cautious. His acting is good enough and he reacts well; the close-ups reveal a thoughtful, alert singer. It will be interesting to hear him in a few years, when he has absorbed more of the character.

Gerd Grochowski's Kurwenal is younger and more impetuous than usual and his voice is handsome. Michelle DeYoung's Brangaene is almost unrecognizable: she's made up to look like a very old woman, almost androgynous and colorless--a sort of blank slate. She is not in her best voice. Matti Salminen's Marke is a classic--not as lushly sung as René Pape's, but nonetheless communicating the King's dignity, shame, anger, and sadness. The rest of the cast is impressive.

Director Patrice Chereau sees the title characters as being all alone in the universe; their interactions with anyone other than one another are minimal. Their obsession is palpable. I'm not sure what it means that Isolde's head begins to drip blood during the Liebestod, and it detracts rather than adds to the scene's intensity. I also wonder why there are so many characters hovering about the unconscious Tristan at the start of the third act. But overall, it is dramatically honest and very moving.

The whole opera is set (by Richard Peduzzi) in front of a high fortress wall; the prow of the ship in Act 1 protrudes from the huge door. This removes all geography from the opera, to no great loss. Bertrand Couderc's lighting is moody and effective and Patrizia Carmine's direction for the small screen is remarkable: in the space of a moment there will be a medium shot, a quick fade to black, a long shot of the same scene for perspective, another fade to black and then a close-up for the scene's action. Moidele Bickel's costumes are up-to-date and very simple; indeed, Marke has nothing regal about his bearing. Everyone is equally human.

Is this the "best" DVD version of this opera? Well, it depends on your tolerance for poor singing from Isolde. Production, conducting, look and feel, picture and sound are all magnificent, and all of the other singing is close to first rate. Meier has a great following of knowledgeable fans; I am not among them. So be warned: this is very satisfying in all but one very important way. But make sure you also own the Nilsson/Vickers.

--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

1.
Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Matti Salminen (Bass), Will Hartmann (Tenor), Gerd Grochowski (Bass Baritone),
Ian Storey (Tenor), Waltraud Meier (Mezzo Soprano), Michelle DeYoung (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Daniel Barenboim
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra,  Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1857-1859; Germany 

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