Bel canto Wagner, but just a tad bland,
This review is from: Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Home of Opera) (Audio CD)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.