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Bayreuth at its best
on 15 June 2005
I was lucky enough to be present at the last outing of this Wieland Wagner production with essentially the same cast - the curtain calls went on for more than 45 minutes!
Undoubtedly, this is a totally exceptional performance - one of those live performances that catches fire from the first enigmatic rise and fall to the famous 'Tristan' chord and never lets you go until long after the last note of the Liebestod has died away. Bohm (often accused of being kapellmeisterish at the time) is electric - the music ebbs and flows with the passion of the protagonists, at times whipped up to almost hysterical proportions (Tristan's Act 2 arrival and the height of his dementia in Act 3 for example), at others achingly lonely (Marke's monologue or the shepherd's piping come to mind).
The singing, too, is unsurpassed. Nilsson and Windgassen are in superlative form throughout - Windgassen tired in Act 3? His character is dying, for God's sake - and he certainly rises to the excitements of Isolde's arrival and the ripping of the bandages from his wound. Christa Ludwig sings Brangane's warnings from the tower with a haunting rapture that matches that of the lovers downstage. The much-missed Martti Talvela sings his (presumably huge) socks off as Marke, turning a character who can be a bore into, for his moment, the most sympathetic and moving person in the opera.
I've never got it with Furtwangler and Flagstad by the time of that performance sounded too maternal for my taste. Bernstein is brave and at times fascinating but his cast aren't as good. Karajan is too overcooked and Vickers - often a great Tristan on stage - was too self-indulgent here. Kleiber (who I also heard, magnificently, at Bayreuth) conducts wonderfully and has a beautifully sung Isolde in Margaret Price, but his Tristan is the rather pedestrian Kollo.
For me, this Bohm recording is the yardstick Tristan and a great example of Bayreuth at its absolute best. The engineers capture the unique Bayreuth sound well, too.