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on 20 February 2011
A midprice reissue of the 2005 headliner, this set is still a treasure trove. It's not only Placido Domingo's long-awaited crack at a role he'd been approaching and avoiding for decades, it's an original, valid, long overdue, and genuinely moving reinterpretation of this disturbing masterwork.

What do I mean? 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, gleaming tone, on-the-dot tuning, 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 chancier than they were on the Met DVD. But with Pappano's encouragement, his line readings are more probing 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 fearsome 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, Kollo, 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.

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.

Includes a bonus disk with libretto and translation. As before, fervently recommended.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 5 February 2012
Despite my having acquired it on its appearance, I have held off reviewing this "Last of the Studio Recordings" to let the dust settle and digest its worth. I have been re-visiting a good few "Tristan" recordings recently and have re-discovered my attachment to semi-forgotten accounts like Knappertsbusch's 1950 live Bayreuth account, Karajan's live Bayreuth performance from 1952 and the classic Furtwängler set. So where does this one fit in? Warning bells go off when I find that a recording languishes on my shelves or is the last to be selected from a range on offer, and I realised that I needed to uncover my subconscious reluctance to listen to this recording first.

Well, that faint lack of enthusiasm does not primarily stem from any problem with the orchestral playing or conducting. It's in beautiful sound, the Royal Opera House Orchestra plays magnificently and Pappano has a vision for the work, which is to bring out the burnished glow and languorous beauty of the score without sacrificing tension. A lot of the time it works, the overture heaves like the ocean, the stately chords heralding Tristan's ominous appearance when summoned by Isolde to leave the helm and present himself as "die Sitte" (according to Isolde) demands are grand and ominous, the love potion music just before the hectic conclusion of Act I pulses and yearns. Pappano manages to sustain the necessary poise and poignancy in the Act III Prelude - always a difficult challenge. Orchestrally, it is a concept which is nowhere near as magisterial as Furtwängler achieves or as passionate as Knappertsbusch's or Karajan's concept but it is of a piece in its Lieder-like attention to detail and commands respect.

No, the problem lies in my response to the voices themselves, inevitably up against others of legendary status. Nina Stemme has a big, vibrant voice and certainly conveys youthful passion. Unfortunately, at emotional moments at high volume that vibrancy can spill over into a marked tremolo or even an incipient wobble in a role which calls for absolute steadiness. Hence at key moments such as "Er sah mir in die Augen" she cannot maintain a firm line and defaults into a thin trembling sound which lacks intensity; "mild und leise" is powerful and has the right, rapt, "otherworldly" quality but is a wobbly. And while she can certainly do anger, desperation and scorn; she has not the experience to bring out biting irony.

Otherwise, Stemme's co-singers are afflicted by what I can only describe as a kind of blandness. Mihoko Fujimura has a fine, steady mezzo of virtually faultless intonation but she brings little individuality to her Brangäne and her voice is often indistinguishable from Stemme's. Olaf Bär lacks low notes, barks a bit and is frankly a bit of bore - always a danger with this puppy-dog role. I remarked of René Pape's recent Wagner recital that he had lost a lot of the vibrancy the voice had in his youth and again here as King Mark his top notes are weak and the tone is comparatively grey here, with neither the heart-breaking intensity nor the effulgence of voice that such as Talvela or Ridderbusch find in the role. Having said that, his "Tod denn alles!" and "Erwache!" right at the end is rather good; he finally finds some real depth of feeling. Villazon gives us a lovely, impassioned cameo as a virile Young Sailor; let's hope he has recovered from his recent vocal trials. I can just about tolerate Ian Bostridge here as the Shepherd; just don't press me on the point...

Which leaves Domingo. A knee-jerk criticism is to scoff at his German but I wonder how many of those who do so actually speak the language and have noticed how much it had improved by the time of this recording? It's still a bit Hispanic but no disaster. He can certainly manage this role without strain in studio takes and brings all his stage experience and much rich, intelligent singing to bear on it. The weight and colour of voice are right; he is touching in his Third Act raving, more musical than Melchior's wayward if compelling moaning or Vickers' effortful agonisings. Always a key point for me is when Tristan has his quasi-mystical vision of the ship scudding over the waves and bringing the waving Isolde to him, first lilting in 3/4 time: "Und drauf Isolde, wie sie winkt". Domingo catches the other-worldly desperation of his illusion and Pappano supports him nobly; "Ach, Isolde, Isolde! Wie schön bist du" is sung with the requisite poetic stillness.

On balance, therefore, this is a "Tristan" I admire but would rank middlingly. For fire, passion and the kind of integrated, visionary quality that sweeps you up into its world and which is missing from this careful account, I return to a batch of recordings from fifty and sixty years ago.
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VINE VOICEon 13 October 2009
This, they said, would be the last large-scale studio recording of an opera to be made. If that proves to be so, it must be said that it's something less than a triumphant End of an Era. Its main claim to fame is Domingo's assumption of the role of Tristan, late in his career. If it's his swansong as well (though we may yet get a baritone role or two from him), then that too is something less than a triumph. It's a part he would never take onto the stage and therein lies the problem. There is some wonderful singing here, especially in the last Act, though perhaps a little less than usual of that unique legato lyrical line we have come to admire in his Wagner performances. Perhaps he just can't come to terms with all that impenetrable Schopenhauerian philosophising about Night and Day in the first half of the Love Duet, but he sounds uncharacteristically disengaged from it all. One begins to understand why so much of this was often cut in performances in the old days. Things pick up from 'O sink hernieder', but the duet never really catches fire. The very end of Act 2 is better: his distracted response to King Marke is genuinely moving. As are large parts of Tristan's delirium in Act 3. Here, the increasingly baritonal qualities in his mature voice work very well.

The rest of the cast are interesting without ever blowing you away as a Nilsson, a Flagstad, a Melchior or a Vickers could. In this day and age Nina Stemme is quite a find - in former times she would have been less so. She makes an appropriately young-sounding Isolde, but she has a way to go to find all the facets of the character - she completely misses the bitter irony as Isolde tells Tristan what he might have said to King Marke, for example. There is a lovely richness to the bottom end of her voice and a good 'ping' at the top - a couple of beautifully taken top Cs near the beginning of the Duet. There is a warm and pleasing vibrato in the voice, too - one just hopes it doesn't spread into a wobble as her career develops. The Japanese Mihoko Fujimura is excellent - there's almost a role-reversal here as Isolde sounds more the mezzo and Brangane more the soprano and there are times when it's hard to differentiate which is singing. Still, it's refreshing to hear a less mature-sounding Brangane than usual and her Warning Song is a dream. Olaf Bar, surprisingly, is a bit of a bore, but Rene Pape proves himself another in the rich vein of Wagnerian basses to have come out of Germany since the war (Frick, Ridderbusch, Moll, Sotin, etc.). The star casting of the bit parts is a mixed blessing - Bostridge is excellent as the shepherd, Villazon less so as the Young Seaman.

Pappano has things to say about the score, no question, but others have more. For example, I like the way he brings out the motif of 'The Look' in the cellos early in the First Act to reveal Isolde's true feelings about Tristan, despite her protestations to the contrary. But I get no real feeling of abandon at the meeting in Act 2 (cf. Bohm) and the prelude to Act 3 misses the grinding angst in the lower strings set against the absolute loneliness of the violins as they climb higher and higher. Go to Bohm or Kleiber or Bernstein to find out how this can cut into the heart of the matter. The engineers miss a lot of tricks, too. The off-stage effects in particular seem botched - the fanfares that greet Marke's arrival in Act 1 are almost inaudible, the hunting horns at the beginning of Act 2 fail to recede further and further into the distance until they are almost inaudible just before 'Nicht Hornerschall' as Wagner instructed and the shepherd's pipe (beautifully played by the ROH's cor anglais player) is a bit too close-up for my taste.

The recording is dedicated to the memory of Carlos Kleiber. For the real visceral experience that a great Tristan can be, turn to him or, better still, to the classic Bohm Bayreuth recording.
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on 14 March 2014
If I'm honest, the best thing about this version is the voice of Placido Domingo. It is truly exquisite. Nina Stemme is fine, but at times her vibrato is a little too fast and narrow for my liking. She does tackle those two famous high-Cs with gusto though.

But there is little drama in Pappano's conducting, especially in the vision of Act 3 where I was left underwhelmed. The orchestra is an opera house orchestra, and it shows. I prefer a more full sound and here it's like there aren't enough string players in the ranks. It doesn't compare well with Karajan's Berlin Philharmonica, my current favourite version.
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on 6 December 2014
It is the conducting of Antonio Pappano and the Isolde of Nina Stemme that truly put this in the highest league. Stemme is everything an Isolde needs to be: singing with radiant grandeur, she is rare in being able to sound sensuous even on the high notes [...] her Liebestod is notable for its beauty; her partnership with Domingo makes for a thrilling love duet.
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on 27 October 2012
I was curious to revisit this "last of the big Wagner studio recordings" following on the Janowski-Stemme Tristan that I reviewed a couple of days ago here: Tristan und Isolde. And overall I must say I found it a bit sanitized. This is studio work indeed and the mikes make sure that Domingo can still, at 60, sing a part that he avoided on stage. In a way, at least for two acts, he is the biggest disappointment of the recording: the lesson is well-learned, but because he focuses his care on the word, he cannot really leave an impersonation. This will be a shame for Act II in particular: Domingo is a very sensual singer, passionate and for this symbol of all lovers, Tristan, I find him amazingly bland. His exotic German has little to do with it: I was at the Royal Opera House two days after the 2005 terrorist attack when he sang the most beautiful Siegmund I have ever heard and where he received, in tears, the ovations of a wounded and proud City - so eager to show Its resilience in the most abject of hardship.
The problem is the lack of affinity with the part even if he is heart-wrenching in Act III - helped by his growing barytonal tone. Also the fact that this is a studio recording: there is no sense of risk whatsoever. Heavens knows that Gould has massive technical problems and can be unpleasant to hear but there will never be any doubt on his commitment in the Janowski recording, his sincerity, and (like Stemme) a significant improvement of his voice since his 2006-7 Siegfrieds.
Stemme is not at her best either: the 2012 recording shows that the voice has become bigger, fuller, warmer, more ample in the top notes. Even if the "structure" of Isolde is already in the 2004 recording, it can nonetheless be a bit shrill and steely at times. In 2012, Stemme has lived with the part for almost a decade and in my view she is not far from being one of the very greats. Not so much here though.
The rest of the cast is mixed: for a beautiful Fujimura as Brangäne (like Sophie Koch, her mezzo-soprano tone is immediately recognizable), we need to cope with the overacting of Olaf Bär (who does to Kurwenal what Breedt is doing to Brangäne in the Janowski recording) and the blandness of Pape as King Marke - who contributes in no small part to the boredom of the second act. Actually Villazon is the best in this recording as the young sailor, but he only has two minutes of airtime.
The orchestra of the ROH does sound a bit too thin indeed, which is a bit misleading in light of what Pappano could extract from the ensemble in the Ring, for example. Pappano himself is not very inspired: he is not showing anything in Act II while I was looking forward to what a conductor with an Italian background could do with that particular section. This is all the more disappointing that Pappano's arrival of Spring in Die Walküre is absolutely beautiful.

So overall this is a rather solid, professional and also stolid and bland "Tristan" where the lack of stage work is severly impacting (negatively) the level of performances. In the Janowski Tristan you will find a better Isolde, a much more involved Tristan and the special atmosphere that always stems from live performances. This EMI Tristan is now on "budget" price. I can understand why.
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on 13 September 2011
Very good recording, but putting the libretto on a separate disc necessitates printing it out on separate sheets of paper. Being Wagner, you end up with what appears to be a substantial volume of print.
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