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Wagner: Tristan und Isolde(2007)
No synopsis for Wagner: Tristan und Isolde.
For more about Wagner: Tristan und Isolde and the Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Blu-ray release, see Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on October 25, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Nina Stemme, Robert Gambill, Katarina Karnéus, Bo Skovhus, René Pape, Stephen Gadd
Director: Thomas Grimm
» See full cast & crew
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Blu-ray Review
Spare and lean, this Glyndebourne production puts the emphasis squarely on the psychological underpinnings of the characters and away from spectacle.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, October 25, 2009
If you're ever in a group of espoused music theorists, have a bit of fun asking them to describe in functional terms the following chord: F, B, D#, G#. Sit back and watch in amazement as these men (and women) of great learning fume and fumble, with some probably insisting it's a French Augmented Sixth (with a flatted third, and inverted to offer a tritone mounted by a perfect fourth, rather than kept triadic in nature). Others will decry any attempt at a functional analysis and simply say, more or less, "Who cares what it is? It sounds cool." Generations of composition and music theory students have been led like sheep to the slaughter by merrily sadistic teachers asking their charges to analyze this chord, as well as the rest of Richard Wagner's gargantuan Tristan und Isolde. What is that opening chord in the Tristan Prelude, anyway? A mutant subdominant? An equally mutant augmented sixth? Does it really matter, since virtually nothing in Tristan und Isolde resolves in any traditional way? Wagner was, to say the least, stretching the bounds of commonly accepted tonalities in his work, and Tristan opened a new universe of altered dominant sevenths, unusual quartal structures (the one described above which was given its own name, "The Tristan Chord"), as well as an astounding lack of anything even approaching cadences (those moments when chords resolve and the listener gets a momentary feeling of aural relief) throughout the piece. Which is all to say Tristan und Isolde was revolutionary in its day, so revolutionary in fact that even close to 150 years after its premiere it continues to challenge listeners, not only for its musical content, but also its libretto, which though perhaps less opaque than some of Wagner's other pieces, still presents some astounding thought-world hoops through which the audience must jump in order to fully appreciate the opera.
And so for purely harmonic reasons if for no others Tristan und Isolde is often seen as one of the most important pieces in the entire history of written music, let alone opera. This mostly splendid Blu-ray presentation of the Glyndebourne Festival's presentation of the piece is historic itself for at least one major reason. Glyndebourne's founder John Christie first envisioned his British festival as an English version of Wagner's own Bayreuth Festival. Logistics and a spouse who favored Mozart and Rossini put the kibosh on that plan until Christie's son expanded the festival, building a new concert hall able to handle the gargantuan musical forces (and frequently sets) needed to properly stage Wagner's work, and so Tristan und Isolde became the first Wagner opera to actually be staged for the Glyndebourne Festival.
Like a lot of Wagner's libretti, a mere recounting of plot points can't come close to communicating the almost mythic power and oft-times subliminal majesty of Tristan. However, for those unfamiliar with the opera, Tristan and Isolde are virtually the definition of doomed lovers. The opera begins with Isolde nearing the end of a long journey from Ireland to Cornwall, where Tristan is taking her to marry the elderly King Marke. It turns out that Tristan and Isolde have quite a history between them, Tristan having murdered Isolde's previous betrothed. Isolde naturally had revenge in mind upon first meeting Tristan, but that (as it always does in opera) turned quickly to love, though one unrequited and seemingly getting worse, as Tristan refuses to even acknowledge Isolde on the long boat trip to Cornwall. Through the machinations of Isolde's handmaiden (and the occasional secret love potion), Isolde's plan to poison both herself and Tristan (so that they can "live" in peace in eternity) is supplanted by eternal love, unfortunately one that cannot be acknowledged. And that's just the first act.
Lovers of operatic starcrossed love will know that it suffices to say that things do not go swimmingly in the subsequent two acts, though Tristan and Isolde do get to profess their love in one of the most famous long sections of the piece, which takes up the bulk of Act II. Unfortunately when King Marke walks in on the lovers, one doesn't need a crystal ball to know that things will probably not end up well, though if you're expecting a Romeo and Juliet type denouement, you might be pleasantly surprised, or at least not too horribly saddened.
As the liner notes to another Wagner Blu-ray I'll be reviewing soon, Tannhauser, make abundantly clear, Wagner was one of the best-read composers in history, a man whose keen intellect seemed to feed off of new ideas. Tristan and Isolde melded Wagner's chromaticism with the equally thorny philosophy of Schopenhauer, so there is a lot of (some may think pretentious) libretto space given to dark and light, night and day, and the requirements of the phenomenal versus the noumenal worlds. What it all boils down to is the peculiar German philosophy that life is best lived dead, and why are we all wasting time in various torments here when it would be so much easier to off ourselves and move onto whatever next awaits us.
Tristan und Isolde is an opera virtually devoid of choral singing, ultimately dependent upon its lead duo for the bulk of its success of failure. Thankfully, this production is superbly sung by Nina Stemme as Isolde and Robert Gambill as Tristan (especially in the Act II love duet, which is achingly lyrical), with able support by Katarina Karneus as Isolde's handmaiden Brangane. The London Philharmonic does a surprisingly nimble job under the baton of Jiri Belohlavek. Sometimes the English interpretations of Wagner can be too polite, lacking that appetite for the jugular that one can hear in the best recordings with the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics, but there's little if any restraint here, and that is mostly a good thing. Unfortunately, the orchestra very occasionally overshadows the singing, but that's about the only complaint from an aural standpoint this Blu-ray presents.
While the staging and direction for television are both well done, Tristan can be an annoyingly static piece at times, and there's little to allay that problem here. Good multi-camera coverage prevents the going from getting too horribly tedious, even when there's little if any action happening onstage. There's also a patently weird stage design that stage director Nikolaus Lehnhoff argues (rather convincingly, actually) serves as both womb and cage for the lovers, but which might remind some viewers of the inside of a Slinky gone horribly awry.
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Blu-ray, Video Quality
Tristan und Isolde arrives on Blu-ray with an AVC encode and a 1080i presentation that while generally excellent does betray interlacing artifacts occasionally. While a lot of this opera is staged in ceaselessly dark, often beautifully dark blue, backgrounds, the palette pops quite nicely. When Act III moves at least partially to a more brown-white palette, we get more opportunity to see fine detail, which is abundantly present. You can, for example, see the actual fabric pattern on the scrim which hangs behind the womb unit set. There is very occasional aliasing (notice the divining branch carried in at the start of Act III for a good example), and also, perhaps more strangely, very occasionally bizarre cross-hatching patterns show up on faces in extreme close-up. Overall, though, this is a beautifully rendered production, with a lot of precision and detail, benefitting from excellent contrast and black levels and an appealing, if sometimes subdued, color scheme.
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Tristan und Isolde features some of Wagner's most sumptuous, even lascivious, music, and this brilliantly recorded Blu-ray offers two excellent sound mixes, Dolby True HD 2.0 and 5.0. The 2.0 is a rather appealing fold down and at times benefits from the reduced separation in making some of the disparately placed singers easier to hear over the immense orchestra. That said, the 5.0 offers a brilliant recreation of an actual hall ambience, with the orchestra sounding positively luscious throughout all three acts. I was repeatedly impressed not only by the deeply burnished brass sounds but also, perhaps more surprisingly, by the warmth and nuance of the strings. Act III's string opening is especially notable in this regard. Fidelity is always top notch in this presentation, with a really impressive dynamic range. There are occasional balance issues, but they are fleeting and seem to be more a matter of projection than actual microphone issues.
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
All of the extras from the previously released SD-DVD version of this title have been ported over, though to Opus Arte's credit, the featurettes are presented in HD. Aside from an illustrated synopsis and cast gallery, there's an excellent documentary by Reiner Moritz called "Do I Hear the Light? (56:05), which offers some background not only on the opera itself, but Glyndebourne as well. "On the Set" is a brief (1:01, as in just a bit over a minute) but fascinating multi-screen time lapse look at the building of the womb set. "Trimborn on Tristan" (48:35) is an absolutely fascinating analysis of the opera's musical language by noted musicologist Richard Trimborn.
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Tristan und Isolde may defy cogent analysis, both musically and dramatically. This is a piece that plies the subconscious and works its spell slowly but surely over the course of several hours. There's not much to see in this production, but that frankly works to the opera's benefit as it places the main focus squarely where it should be: the incredible music.
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