Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Tristan und Isolde Mehta Konwitschny Meier West

WAGNER Tristan und Isolde
Zubin Mehta, cond; Jon Fredric West (Tristan); Waltraud Meier (Isolde); Bernd Weikl (Kurwenal); Marjana Lipovšek (Brangäne); Kurt Moll (King Marke); Claes H. Ahnsjö (Melot); Ulrich Ress (Sailor); Kevin Conners (Shepherd); Hans Wilbrink (Sailor); Bavarian State Opera
ARTHAUS 100057 (2 DVDs: 240:37) Live: Munich 1998

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Don’t be fooled by the lurid imagery on the box – this is a surprisingly upbeat and playful staging of Tristan und Isolde. Director Peter Konwitschny, whose celebrity affords him equal billing to Zubin Mehta, is the creative force behind the production, with stage designer Johannes Leiacker putting the visual details to this bold reimagining. The first act takes place on the deck of a cruise ship, with the love potion served as cocktails. In the second act, a floral-print sofa is brought into the forest as a focal point for the action. And in act three, Tristan sits in a gloomy bedsit, looking though holiday snaps on a slide projector, as he waits for Isolde.
The gravest charge that can be brought against these visual themes is campness – hardly an attribute we associate with this opera, and not one that benefits it greatly. On the other hand, the settings are never obtrusive, and are just one aspect of Konwitschny’s thorough dramatic interpretation. Just as important is his Personenregie, drawing convincing and meaningful dramatic performances from each of the leads and achieving real, meaningful interaction between the lovers. He also has some clever ways of bringing the more metaphysical aspects of the story down to a more corporeal (and therefore representable) level. The ending in particular, is thoroughly reimagined, with Tristan’s bedsit becoming a metaphorical representation of selfness and unity, as it is variously abused and intruded upon, including in a riotous raid by King Marke’s men. Tristan also comes back from the dead, at least in some spectral form, during the final scene to lead Isolde off into the beyond: a risky directorial strategy, but one that Konwitschny pulls off convincingly.
The cast is excellent, but is dominated by Waltraud Meier as Isolde. She is on fine form, lyrical, nuanced, and continuously engaging. Her tone has a rich, dark quality, even in the uppermost register, which allows here to fill even the most acrobatic phrases with emotion. Jon Fredric West too is captured at the very height of his powers, and gives a convincing and compelling performance of Tristan. Konwitschny has clearly worked hard to get the chemistry just right between the two of them. Appropriate facial expressions accompany every phrase, but the acting also takes into account the timescale at which the drama unfolds. So expressions and phrases rarely seem to take them by surprise, rather the words seem to flow out of the stage drama, codifying the actions that we are seeing. True, the facial expressions are exaggerated for the sake of the more distant live audience, and can seem a little contrived in close-up, yet they always remain convincing.
 The supporting cast also gives fine performances. Marjana Lipovšek is steady and dependable as Brangäne, less florid in tone than Meier and complementing her well. Occasional intonation problems in the lower register stand out, but only because of the uniformly high musical quality elsewhere. Bernd Weikl also supports well as Kurnewal, a rich, steady foundation beneath West’s more impassioned utterances above. The recording was made in 1998, which may explain how so many of the lead singers are captured in such youthful prime. Kurt Moll, as King Marke, was also at the top of his game, steady and focussed in each of his interjections.
Like all of Wagner’s mature operas, Tristan has been subjected to revisionist muisical tendencies in recent years, with conductors applying more discipline to tempos and dynamics and attempting to balance clarity of line with intensity of expression. More often than not, the results are distinctly underwhelming (try Janowski’s recent recording for an extreme example), but here Zubin Mehta manages to get the best of both worlds. Tempos often feel slightly on the fast side, but rubato, while ever-present, never seems impulsive or extraneous. There is plenty of passion here, but there is plenty of detail as well. The orchestral lines come through with rare clarity, as do the vocal lines. Every word is audible, something for which the singers, the recording team, and possibly even Konwitschny, should take some credit. But more important, I think, is Mehta’s musical direction, the space he gives to each of the singers, and the focus on line and phrase that he encourages from them.
The video director is Brian Large, which is probably all you need to know about the quality of the filming. There are a lot of close-ups, but they are never pulled right into the singer’s face. More importantly, the editing between shots is never rushed, matching well the pace of the music. That’s particularly evident in the Liebestod, in which the camera remains trained on Meier’s face throughout, without any wavering or distraction. Elsewhere, Large indulges in a few cinematic indulgences, the long fades between shots at the end of the second act for example, but all serve the production well.
The only disappointment is the graphic design of the box. The image on the front cover does little to convey the nature of this production, and the stills in the booklet are in a grainy black and white. There are no extras either, which may disappoint some. Even so, this is an excellent Tristan and deserves high recommendation. Elements of both the stage design and the musical interpretation may irk the most stubborn of traditionalists, but even they should find something of interest in this clever, sophisticated and continuously engaging production.

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