Turning for the fourth time on record to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde – a work he is currently performing at the Met – Daniel Barenboim shows how much his understanding of the piece has grown over the decades on this new DVD from La Scala. As much as his reading from Bayreuth in the early 1980s (now available on DVD) has received huge acclaim, for me Barenboim's subsequent attempts have far more successfully reconciled the opposing aspects of the work, be it stasis and action, sensuality and austerity, life and death, silence and intense sound.
Conducting without a score, Barenboim's feel for this opera is now more deep-seated than ever, and even the much-performed Prelude is breathtakingly fresh in this rendition. Inaugurating a new relationship with the La Scala orchestra (with whom he was making his debut), Barenboim also achieves a lyrical, romantic warmth that perhaps doesn't always come through in his performances with the German orchestras – indeed, for me this softer side is preferable to Barenboim's sometimes too muscular approach to this piece, which he says he has conducted more than any other opera.
The Argentine conductor has long wanted to perform Tristan with legendary director Patrice Chéreau, but that wish was not satisfied until this production opened in December 2007. The collaboration has certainly paid off. Chéreau eschews the inclination of many directors in recent years to impose an aggressively controversial reading on the work and instead presents it against a naturalistic backdrop. The staging is simple but beautiful, making the descent into the mystical vortex of night a compelling experience. Occasionally the murkiness is oppressive, but it suits this piece, and the literal representation of aspects such as the ship, combined with a detailed Personenregie, comes across very well on DVD. Nor does Chéreau take an entirely non-interventionist approach: aside from the effective use of walls to form psychological as well as physical barriers, nobody who has seen the production could quickly forget the remarkable staging of the Liebestod, in which a trickle of blood seeps down Isolde's head as she dies. Like the whole production, the gesture is understated but profound.
Barenboim's favourite Isolde has long been Waltraud Meier, and although the upper register of the role takes her to an uncomfortable place in her voice, her overall performance is in a different league to most of the rest of the cast. She is as ever a compelling actress who stops at nothing to convey the message of the piece, with searing vocal presence and a clear notion of what she wants from the role. You could hear it sung more beautifully but never more meaningfully or expressively.
By her side, British tenor Ian Storey is inevitably a little overshadowed, not inhabiting the role of Tristan with anything like as much excitement, but he is a strong, solid presence and does himself proud through his stamina. Matti Salminen is an outstanding, authoritative Marke and Will Hartmann is luxury lasting as Melot, but although Gerd Grochowski's Kurwenal is very fine, Michelle DeYoung is a weak link with her rather squally Brangäne. The smaller roles are all notably well sung, showing Barenboim's strong musical standards from top to bottom, and the performance has a real sense of occasion, opening the La Scala 2008-09 season with an air of relief after tensions and strikes by some of the staff.
The DVD is enhanced by Chéreau's 'Notes on Tristan' in the accompanying booklet. The director communicates his doubts and worries about approaching the work, examining how passion, the suicidal instinct, loneliness, sex, mysticism, rituals, rebirth, power, external forces and death all collide in this remarkable creation. I find his description of Isolde's death especially moving, a remarkable verbalisation of the processes she goes through in her final moments, and I would personally recommend reading the notes before watching the DVD as a way into Chéreau's unique brand of theatre. A gripping release.
See also our reviews of other recordings of Tristan und Isolde:
Barenboim's 1983 account on DVD from Bayreuth with Meier and Kollo here
Belohlavek's 2007 account from Glyndebourne with Nina Stemme here
Polaski and Botha sing the duets here