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WAGNER Tristan & Isolde

Tristan, Jon Frederic West
Isolde, Waltraud Meier
King Mark, Kurt Moll
Kurwenal, Bernd Weikl
Brangane, Marjana Lipovsek
Chorus & orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper
Conductor, Zubin Mehta
Stage director, Peter Konwitschny
Arthaus Musik DVD 100056 (241 mins - 2 discs)

A spate of recent Tristan & Isolde productions, mostly in indeterminate or abstract settings, including one at ENO which I greatly applauded, prompted me to revisit the Mehta/Konwitschny DVD that I had greatly enjoyed when first released. This Munich Tristan may not be top of the Wagnerian musical stakes, but it is enthralling in its innovative, always interesting production, and remarkable for the quality of acting and photography. For television and this DVD it was directed by Brian Large, with exactly the right choices of camera shots; these singers had learned to convey their emotions for the camera without over-acting, and I suspect that the audiences in the theatre did not feel short-changed either.

Peter Konwitschny's interpretation for the stage is positive and optimistic, with a surprising, open ended conclusion, with a secret best left as a surprise. He sees the drama as one between power and possessions or human closeness and warmth. The final song (it was not Wagner who called it the 'Lieberstod') becomes a jubilant song of life. There are marvellous ideas on the way, several which provoke uproarious laughter at their outrageous daring. Because the shock effect is brief, one soon settles again to the underlying seriousness of the story and the impassioned and tortured feelings the protagonists live through.

The opera opens on board ship, of course, but what a ship! And a solution for the familiar problem of how to dispose the lovers on stage for their long Act 2 duet is found with a hilarious coup de theatre, a moment never to be forgotten; it too quite quickly comes to seem extremely sensible, and convenient also, for the reflections which precede the violent finish.

For me, Marjana Lipovsek as Brangane captured attention from the very start with her subtle, understated responses to the intrusive 'young sailor' in a new guise and to Isolde's narration. Soon one realises that Waltraud Meier is reflecting in her face and gestures every word and passing thought - her beauty and intelligence seizes and holds attention in a way that some may find distracts from full attention to the music; but one can always play it again, and I was left wanting to do so. The voice is beautiful and her stamina in live performance untiring. Jon Fredric West was less convincing in loving passion than in surly defiance at the start, and anguish and feverish delirium in the last act, which he sustains without flagging. The DVD would be worth acquiring just for Kurt Moll's assumption of the betrayed elderly King Marke, who arrives at the point of acceptance and reconciliation just too late; marvellously expressive singing and equally marvellous characterisation, making his lengthy narrations pass without longeur.

This oblique commentary about the production deliberately avoids giving away too much, as one would if reviewing a 'who dunnit'. Having seen only few, I would guess that this Tristan & Isolde represents a coming-of-age of opera on DVD. It offers crystal-clear vision and sumptuous, rich yet well differentiated orchestral floods of tone under Zubin Mehta's direction. It has received mixed responses, and a colleague who is a far more Perfect a Wagnerian than I has admired the interpretation, but found it easier to take in without watching all the time. I certainly felt that there was no musical compromise and that it would be rewarding to listen to it once with a score instead of seeing the action again.

Adapted from review on MusicWeb


© Peter Grahame Woolf