Up to now, having heard the first four installments of PentaTone's Wagner cycle, I've mostly lamented dull conducting and inferior singing. We are living in an era where even the major opera houses can't assemble casts for Wagner's masterpieces. For that reason, I think the best way to experience them is on DVD, where the staging can play its part in protecting the singers from harsh comparisons with the great Wagnerians of the past.
This new Tristan rises considerably above its predecessors in the cycle. Its raison d'etre is Nina Stemme's highly accomplished Isolde. As a young singer she was chosen personally by Placido Domingo in this role; their EMI studio recording from 2005 was expected to be the last expensive Wagner opera made by a major label, and to date that remains true. (On DVD we've had a pairing that was vocally even better in Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner from the Met, but neither singer was recorded on disk.) Arguably Stemme was too young to be really satisfying in hr first try, but now she is a stage veteran; the voice remains beautiful and secure; it is ample, and she can sustain Wagner's long, vocally exhausting scenes. Innately there is more voice from top to bottom than Deborah Voigt demonstrated in her rather unfortunate live Isolde on DG under Thielemann, which was only satisfying in the upper half of the voice. Stemme's Liebestod is quite lovely - she sounds vulnerable and rises beautifully to the music's transcendent climax without strain.
For Stemme alone this Tristan would be worth hearing, but there's more good news. Janowski has been lackluster in the earlier installments of this cycle, but here he is several notches above competent; nothing is inspired, but the pacing is good, and each scene is given its due. The recorded sound (as heard in MP3 format, not in SACD) is lifelike and full. The orchestra isn't virtuosic but plays well. Finally, to round out the reasons to be glad, the Kurvenal of Johan Reuter is strong and committed, and the Brangane of Michelle Breedt is the same; she carries real passion in her first act scene with Isolde as she realizes her mistress's dire plans. Kwangchul Youn makes for a noble, sonorous Marke whose voice is reminiscent of the Finnish sound that has dominated the role since the says of the great Martti Talvela.
If you are waiting for the other shoe to drop with the most problematic role, that of Tristan, so was I. Stephen Gould belongs in the upper ranks of make-do Heldentenors who come and go without leaving a lasting impression. No one expects any better these days. Gould was Thielemann's Siegfried in a Ring cycle recorded live from Bayreuth in 2008, but this is my first encounter with him. Surprise, his voice is virile, strong, appealing in timbre, and records quite well. I have no idea what his stamina is like on stage, but under concert conditions he fares well in all three acts.
There are two severe tests for any Tristan, the Act II Liebesnacht and the murderous Act III soliloquy. I don't want to exaggerate Gould's abilities. He's no Domingo or Windgassen, to name two non-helden Tristans who were convincing nonetheless. Vocally, he's not even Rene Kollo or Peter Hoffmann, as we slide down the scale. But Gould knows how to shape a vocal line, and he's not wobbly, squally, or shrill. As a result, even though neither of the crucial scenes is a joy, they aren't embarrassments, either.
In the end, this is the strongest of the PentaTone series to date, thanks to a solid cast and Stemme's fine Isolde. The EMI Tristan is still preferable, I think, because of Domingo and the excellent conducting of Antonio Pappano, but this new recording offers real pleasure in its best parts.
Stephen Gould (Tristan), Nina Stemme (Isolde), Kwangchul Youn (König Marke), Johan Reuter (Kurwenal), Michelle Breedt (Brangäne), Simon Pauly (Melot), Clemens Bieber (Ein Hirte/A shepherd), Arttu Kataja (Ein Steuermann/A steersman) & Timothy Fallon (Ein junger Seemann/A young sailor)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin & Rundfunkchor Berlin, Marek Janowski