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CURATE'S EGG OF A TRISTAN,
This review is from: Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Home of Opera) (Audio CD)
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.