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Wagner: Tristan Und Isolde / Smith, Theorin [blu-ray]

Wagner / Smith / Holl / Theorin / Rasilainen
Release Date: 02/23/2010 
Label:  Opus Arte   Catalog #: 7067  
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Performer:  Iréne TheorinRobert Dean Smith
Conductor:  Peter Schneider
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bayreuth Festival OrchestraBayreuth Festival Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
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Blu-ray Video:  $48.99
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

*** This Blu-ray Disc is only playable on Blu-ray Disc players and not compatible with standard DVD or HD DVD players. ***


WAGNER Tristan und Isolde Peter Schneider, cond; Robert Dean Smith ( Tristan ); Iréne Theorin ( Isolde ); Michelle Breedt ( Brangäne ); Jukka Read more Rasilainen ( Kurwenal ); Robert Holl ( King Marke ); Ralf Lukas ( Melot ); Clemens Bieber ( Young Sailor ); Arnold Bezuyen ( Shepherd ); Martin Snell ( Steersman ); Bayreuth Fest O & Ch OPUS ARTE OA BD7067 D (2 Blu-ray discs); OA 1033 D (3 DVDs) (292:00) Live: Bayreuth 8/9/2009

This production of Tristan und Isolde, first seen in 2005 and filmed for this Opus Arte release last summer, initially met with some hostility but has been warmly received in more recent Bayreuth seasons. The Swiss director Christoph Marthaler imagines Tristan as a mid-level functionary in some Western European government c.1960, carrying on with the wife of the head of state. It’s a realization of great subtlety and all the singers give nuanced performances—small gestures and facial expressions mean a lot—and eschew the broad gestures of a big opera house for an acting style suited for film, or the relatively intimate environment of the Festspielhaus. Anna Viebrock, the costume and stage designer, states that she prefers a “unit set” without “constant changes of scenery,” and this production has the look of an old-fashioned TV drama broadcast. One memorable feature is the presence of dozens of round fluorescent bulbs, the sort that were ubiquitous in kitchens in the 1950s, that comment on the lovers’ obsession with light and dark, life and death. They’re the first thing we see in a black firmament during the first act Vorspiel and they are dramatically extinguished overhead when the lovers meet up in the large and unwelcoming meeting hall that’s the setting for act II. The final act finds Tristan in a gritty basement and spare bulbs hanging on the wall flicker along with the protagonist’s dwindling life force.

Robert Dean Smith, this production’s Tristan since it debuted, is very effective even if he doesn’t possess the most muscular and inexhaustible Heldentenor instrument. Smith negotiates the lengthy ardent passages of act II and the tortuous paragraphs of act III with intelligence and a fine sense of musical and dramatic pacing. He seizes on opportunities for lyrical expressiveness. “O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen,” near the end of the second act, reveals his character’s basic decency and sense of personal responsibility; in act III, “Ich war, wo ich von je gewesen, wohin auf je ich geh” (I was where I’d always been and where forever I shall go) is quite moving.

For those who prefer a voice with more of a laser-beam focus for the volatile Irish princess, Iréne Theorin’s soprano may seem too diffuse, her vibrato too coarse. But she plays the part with a spirited, sarcastic combativeness in the first act that’s transformed into a voracious sexuality for the second. I was underwhelmed by Theorin’s Brünnhilde in the otherwise extraordinary Copenhagen Ring ( Fanfare 32:3)—her main qualifications for taking on the biggest Wagnerian roles seem to be stamina and power; she’s not that interesting a singer—but at least her acting is better here. Nine Stemme was the Isolde for this production in 2005 and 2006 and it’s too bad one of those performances wasn’t filmed.

Robert Holl’s delivery of Marke’s second-act speech is expressive and heart-rending. Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne is an ideal blend of servant and confidant who’s as devastated by the circumstances as her mistress. Jukka Rasilainen—in a kilt!—portrays a hearty Kurwenal who never seems impatient with his boss’s dumb questions in act III. The smaller roles are executed well and the men of the Bayreuth chorus (never in sight) have been admirably well prepared. Peter Schneider is a superb Wagner conductor who leads with urgency and momentum. The act I Prelude is one of fastest around at a bit over nine minutes, yet Schneider never, ever seems to rush. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra’s playing, as usual, is richly assured.

This is the first Blu-ray disc to originate from Bayreuth and thus the first high-resolution multichannel recording of a performance in the Festspielhaus to be commercially available. I was eager to hear if the recording captured the aural experience of that one-of-a-kind venue. Truth be told, while the surround-sound presentation is spacious and involving, it does not re-create the singular acoustic of the Festspielhaus, the sense of voices and orchestra being present in the same plane and sound palpable all around the listener. Maybe next time: Opus Arte has a long-term arrangement with the Bayreuth Festival to record performances there. The surround option on the DVD release (three discs instead of two, but significantly less expensive) isn’t nearly as good, though the stereo program is identical on both formats. Video-wise, the DVD looks pretty good—until you witness the BD’s vastly superior contrast and detail.

Subtitles are offered in English, French, German, and Spanish. Both DVD and BD hold the same extras—a plot synopsis, cast gallery, and a half-hour feature “Kinder, mach was Neues!” The making of Tristan und Isolde. The latter is one of the best such features I’ve encountered on an opera video, with genuinely interesting insights from musicians and production personnel. This 2009 performance was the second to be streamed simultaneously to a huge screen set up in the Bayreuth Festplatz (Katharina Wagner’s Die Meistersinger was the first, in 2008) and it’s fascinating to hear about the technical challenges of this ambitious undertaking.

The other Tristan currently available on Blu-ray, a 2007 Glyndebourne performance starring Robert Gambill and Nina Stemme, is my favorite video version of the eight I’m familiar with. But for the intriguing production concept—admittedly, it won’t be to everyone’s taste—for Smith’s Tristan, for the conducting and orchestral contribution, and for its aural and visual virtues, Opus Arte’s release can be highly recommended to video-collecting Wagnerians.

FANFARE: Andrew Quint
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Works on This Recording

Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Iréne Theorin (Soprano), Robert Dean Smith (Tenor)
Conductor:  Peter Schneider
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bayreuth Festival Orchestra,  Bayreuth Festival Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1857-1859; Germany 

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