Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is relatively well represented on DVD, but this release is notable for being the only commercial account of the Isolde of the legendary dramatic soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones which is currently readily available.
Jones first performed Isolde in 1978, but this performance, given by the Deutsche Oper Berlin on tour to Japan, dates from 1993, almost 30 years after Jones hit the big time, substituting for an indisposed Leontyne Price at the Royal Opera as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore in 1964. It is probably fair to say that by 1978, Jones had already become a divisive singer, admired and loved by many for her incredible commitment to her roles and the refulgence of her singing, but criticised by others for her habit of swooping up to notes and her wide vibrato. As is the case with many great divas, those characteristics which made her such an individual singer became more pronounced with age and in this performance, they are impossible to ignore. That said, anybody who cherishes this artist, either because of or in spite of her idiosyncrasies, will find her in remarkably secure voice on this DVD.
Jones presents a very feminine Isolde, fearsome in her Act I curse of course, but vulnerable and wounded in spirit just as much as Tristan had been wounded in body in the story recounted in the narration. Jones explores all of Isolde's complex motivations for her desire for death, hinting at an unrequited love for the hero she had nursed back to health just as strongly as the explicit grief she feels for her murdered betrothed. The accompanying thirst for vengeance and the terrible conflict in her heart that results from the situation are communicated with fervour. The abandon with which she extinguishes the flame in Act II and the reckless passion she brings to the love duet are breathtaking, both for her free flowing, enormous voice but also her dramatic conviction which makes one forget that she was in her late 50s when the performance was filmed. Her 'Ha! Ich bins' in Act III is extremely moving. Jones creates the emotional climax here, which sets up the 'Liebestod' magnificently, allowing Isolde to ride the orchestra with serenity and ease in her final few minutes, an effect which proves far more moving than the thrusting urgency which less experienced, or less vocally well endowed sopranos tend to engage in at this point. This Isolde's transfiguration is dignified and incredibly profound.
As Tristan, René Kollo is also very impressive. Whilst a slight thickness in his timbre prevents him from ever quite achieving the line one might wish for, he definitely sings the whole role without straining or barking at any point. He is passionate and accomplished throughout, but in Act III he becomes really compelling, exploring Tristan's delirium with vocal and dramatic freedom. He appears to have been well directed by Götz Friedrich, in that he doesn't fall into the trap of playing up the wound and remaining fixed in one position. Instead, he is always free to express and deliver one of the most strenuous passages in all opera in sympathetic circumstances.
Kollo is also very well supported in Act III by the conducting of Jiří Kout, who always ensures the tempi are congenial to the singers. There are moments in the score, particularly in Act III, where I feel an ideal interpretation does have a sense of stasis about it, and this is lacking in this performance, but it is something that may only be achievable in the recording studio. In the context of a live performance, any but the very greatest Tristan needs to feel the forward momentum at all times to avoid vocal melt-down, and this is what Kout provides. Kout also manages to keep a tight rein on the Act II love duet, achieving a thrilling climax without allowing matters to get too frantically out of hand. If Kout's overall interpretation is perhaps not one for the ages, it certainly seems to be designed to get the best out of the singers, which is the right way to prioritise a live performance of an opera with such arduous central roles.
The production is fairly traditional, in that the settings for each act as described in the text are clearly invoked, but as is typical of many Wagner stagings, the minimalism of Wieland Wagner's post-war Bayreuth productions appears to have influenced Günther Schneider-Siemssen's sets. There does appear to be a bit of detail on stage, but one can scarcely see it on the screen because the lighting, by Olaf-Siegfried Stolzfuss, which may have been very effective in the theatre, creates a somewhat crepuscular gloom for most of the action. Still, reservations about the production are not grave concerns in a piece which, above all, is about personal relationships as opposed to spectacle. The camera work is slightly frustrating because it doesn't always pan out for a full view of the stage for key events, and in this particular opera, events are relatively few and far between. But the focus on the singers' faces during their lengthy discourses is welcome.
All of the remaining roles are well taken, particularly the imposing, if not especially probing King Marke of Robert Lloyd, and the Brangäne of Hanna Schwarz, which must be one of the finest performances of the role on record. There is nothing about the staging which offends, and Kout creates a musical environment in which his singers can shine. For the extremely satisfying Tristan of Kollo, and the magnificent, searing Isolde of Jones, this is a most welcome release of one of the greatest of all operas.
By John Woods
CD Review: Gwyneth Jones in Il Trovatore from Covent Garden (ROH)
DVD Review: Barenboim conducts Tristan from La Scala (Virgin)
Opera Review: Deborah Voigt sings Isolde at the Met (March 2008)
DVD Review: Nina Stemme stars in Nikolaus Lenhoff's Glyndebourne Tristan (Opus Arte)