This recording has been making headlines for largely extramusical reasons: it's maybe the last bigtime studio effort; private money had to foot much of the bill; and it's Placido Domingo's only crack at a role he's been approaching and avoiding for decades. So when I ordered it from overseas, what did I expect? Mostly a one-man showcase, though a decently interesting one since Domingo possesses the hard-to-believe combination of a splendidly preserved voice plus smarts and integrity. But what I NEVER expected was that these discs would embody an original, valid, long overdue, and genuinely moving reinterpretation of this disturbing masterwork.
What gives? Well, as the admired British critic John Steane once wrote, Wagner himself "is said to have constantly urged his interpreters to sing in the Italian manner." And what does this manner entail? Steane again: "smoothness of line, beauty of tone, and elegance of technical accomplishment." Handed the reins by EMI, Covent Garden music director Antonio Pappano has, at long last, set about giving us nothing less than bel canto Wagner.
You hear it from the outset of the Act I prelude -- the strings are warm and burnished, spin a continuous singing line, crescendo in arcs from the brink of inaudibility, then taper back into silence on phrase endings. And when the young sailor (Rolando Villazon in luminous voice) sings his love ditty, similar principles apply: long-breathed legato, mastery of a wide dynamic range (including echo effects and well-supported soft singing), and eager articulation of the text.
Clearly this is official directorial policy, because much the same can be said of every cast member here. Mihoko Fujimura's lyric mezzo traces Brangaene's lines with unusual delicacy and variety, perfectly in tune, finely focused, floating her high notes ("Welcher Wahn!" in I iii is sweetly nurturing, the Watch in II ii marvelously ethereal). As for Isolde, here the set serves instant notice that it isn't a Domingo ego trip but a whole-souled effort to do the work justice. Nina Stemme hasn't Fujimura's floated high notes (she sustains her pianissimo F sharp at the close of "Mild und leise" by discreetly widening the vibrato), but she has everything else: imaginative phrasing, bright, fresh tone, pinpoint intonation, steady emission, well-knit scale, soaring top, melting legato ("Ich bin's, ich bins" in III ii is heartrending). Within seconds of her first entrance it's clear she's the real thing: she piles hair-raisingly into "Hoert meinen Willen" and you realize she's as accomplished an Isolde as we've had since the seventies.
Our two low-voiced leads aren't on this level but still have plenty to offer. Olaf Baer's lovely baritone is undersized and thin on the bottom for the rambunctious Kurwenal, but he really sells his taunting ballad and is sensitive and affecting throughout Act III. As for Rene Pape, his mellifluous basso cantate is choice casting for King Marke, though his forte top notes are less secure than they were on the Met DVD. But with Pappano's encouragement, his line readings are more probingly detailed and he manages a marvel of hushed poignancy at "Da kinderlos." Plus we sense the conductor's fine Italian hand even with the bit players: they all display this same balance of smooth legato and pointed articulation of the words -- e.g., the intimate delivery and silver sound of Ian Bostridge's shepherd, or Jared Holt's split-second ability to make a formidable figure of Melot through ringing tone, energetic phrasing, and a telling subito piano at "ob ich mein Haupt."
And now the set's reason for being. There's no percentage in quibbling over Domingo's Tristan -- the voice is in excellent working order -- or in chiding him for not tackling the part onstage -- tenors who do seem not to enjoy long careers (Hofmann, Thomas, Jerusalem, even Windgassen; Melchior doesn't count because he sang a drastically abridged and simplified version). But in the studio the role's characteristic high notes (A flat, A) aren't a problem, Domingo's bronze timbre aptly suggests Tristan the warrior, his soft singing is firmly supported and never crooned or declaimed (unlike the maverick Vickers), and he partners Stemme gallantly (in the duet passages of "O sink hernieder," they pitch the tricky intervals with breathtaking ease and accuracy). His could well be the most thoroughly SUNG Tristan in Wagner history -- yet, like the rest of the company, he's also alert to verbal and theatrical values, sardonically relishing the consonants at "seines flackernden Lichtes fluechtige Blitze," almost spooky at "Dem Land, das Tristan meint," downright bloodcurdling during his curse on the "furchtbarer Trank." Again, there's no percentage in quibbling -- this Tristan is intelligent, poetic, emotionally open, vocally qualified, musically immaculate, and desperately needed. In short, it's a genuinely significant piece of work and a fitting capstone to an extraordinary career.
As suggested, the Covent Garden orchestra is another eloquent factor. First violins come from your left speaker, seconds from your right, instantly clarifying the polyphony. Tempos are fleet yet cleanly executed, so nothing seems rushed. And in a crunch this band has no problem exchanging bel canto lyricism for crushing power: they're thrilling in the runup to Tristan's entrance in II ii, gut-wrenching with the famous discord that interrupts "O ew'ge Nacht."
The stereo sonics are warm, airy, and wide-ranging, locating events with exceptional variety and specificity between the two speakers. Since directionality is already superb, the bonus DVD in 5.1 surround isn't markedly superior: it offers the pleasing convenience of an onscreen text and running translation, but the rear speakers add little extra information.
So how does this new set stack up against the competition? Remarkably, I'd say. Despite monaural sound and variable vocalism, the 1952 Furtwaengler set remains a classic, with the 1966 Boehm another standard recommendation and the 1982 Kleiber a more recent favorite -- but for today's consumers, Pappano's is the most vibrantly recorded, appealingly sung, and immediately communicative performance available in stereo.
The booklet includes a full German libretto, English and French translations, many pix, and generous notes. Fervently recommended.