There were many reasons to eagerly anticipate this disc. Most importantly, it is the world-premiere of the 'concert version' of the great Act II love duet from `Tristan and Isolde', something of interest to even casual admirers of Wagner, not just scholars and fanatics. It is also Placido Domingo's first foray into repertory that both he and his admirers had wanted him to sing for years, but he kept putting off due to worries it was bad for his voice. The recording would also feature the grossly underrecorded Deborah Voight, one of the greatest dramatic sopranos of our time, and I was also eager to hear the Lithuanian mezzo Violeta Urmana, who got rave reviews for her Kundry at Bayreuth. Finally, to put the icing on the cake, this is Antonio Pappano's first recording with the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which he will shortly assume the musical directorship of, and we needed to hear what they would make of each other.
It was actually as a conductor of Wagner that Pappano first came to international attention - he replaced Christoph von Dohnanyi in 'Siegfried' at Vienna - so it is no surprise that what he does here is extraordinarily impressive. Also, much of what Massenet does in 'Werther' looks forward to Wagner, and he conducts this opera magnificently. Admittedly, it would probably take hearing him conduct or record an ENTIRE Wagner opera, not just excerpts, to truly judge him in this repertory, but what he does here is splendid. He is essentially a man of the theatre and always supremely sensitive to and supportive of singers. Pappano brings out all the drama, passion, tenderness, longing and eroticism of this music with superb dynamic control and pacing. He seems to have a very good rapport with the orchestra as well, and that bodes very well for the future of Covent Garden.
Certainly Domingo and Voight made a glorious pair as Siegmund and Sieglinde in `Die Walkure' at the Met. The question was would they be ready for the much heavier roles of Siegfried and Brunnhilde. While I'm not sure they quite reach the heights of some of the greatest Siegfrieds and Brunnhildes on record, their Siegfried duet is still an impressive achievement. Even if Domingo doesn't sound like a teenage Siegfried (neither does anyone else!) it is still impossible to believe that this man turns 60 this month. It is an ardent, passionate performance, if slightly generalized, and while a native might have problems with his German, I don't. Unlike Jane Eaglen, Voight doesn't knock you out of your chair on 'Heil dir, sonne' - her voice doesn't have quite Eaglen's richness and amplitude, although I suspect that might be partially due to distant miking. The lyricism of Voight's voice suggests a very young Brunnhilde, not innappropriate because I've always thought of her as an all-powerful super-teen. She is at her best in the 'Ewig var ich' section, rising to extraordinary beauty and tenderness in the line 'O Siegfried! Herrlicher! Hort der Welt!'. Voight still needs to do some work to bring out Brunnhilde's awakening humanity, although she already shows her fear of Siegfried's intense passion and the inner confusion it generates. The potential for an at least very good Brunnhilde is definitely there, and I would love to hear record more Wagner. How about a solo disc, EMI, some other company?
The 'Tristan und Isolde' duet is simply astonishing. I've always found this music dense and difficult, but now I finally understand why people are so deeply moved by it. Without the sudden arrival of King Marke that takes place in the opera, here the lovers actually have a happy ending in soaring phrases from the Liebestod. Whatever slight reservations I have about them in 'Siegfried', both Domingo and Voight are vocally and dramatically perfect for their roles here. The effect of them reaching such passionate heights along with Pappano and the orchestra is overwhelming. And even with distant recording and singing for a grand total of maybe 3 minutes, Urmana makes a major impression as Brangane - I eagerly await her Metropolitan Opera debut in 'Parsifal' in April 2001. I hope at some point this team actually does this duet live in concert - can you imagine what the impact would be if it's this effective on record?
My one qualm is with the documentation. Either no one bothered to tell the critic who wrote the notes that this wasn't the standard version of the 'Tristan' duet, or he failed to take that into account. There is no information on the origin of the concert version or on the difference between it and the version used in the opera - and this is information we need to know. It is nice that they included a picture of Urmana as well as the two stars and Pappano, but some biographies of the artists would have been welcome.
For various reasons, I have become accustomed to Wagner only very slowly and somewhat reluctantly. This is a perfect disc to introduce Wagner to those who are skeptics and neophytes, especially those who are also admirers of any of the artists involved. I am now eagerly looking forward to the disc of Wagner arias Domingo will be recording under Pappano, and, finances permitting, I might even try to go to London in 2002-2003 to see Pappano conduct 'Lohengrin'!