Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Stemme, Gambill, Pape, Karneus; LPO/Belohlavek, Lehnhoff (Opus Arte OA0988D)

Release Date: 13 January 2008 4 star

Tristan from Glyndebourne

One might not think to look to Jiri Belohlavek, the gentlemanly but rather placid Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, for a ravishing performance of Tristan und Isolde. I couldn't help but wonder: would he be able to do justice to Wagner's psycho-erotic masterpiece?

On the basis of this new DVD recording of the piece from the Glyndebourne Festival in August 2007, the answer is a resounding yes and I can't think of a more grippingly-paced rendition of this opera on DVD. What steals it is the orchestral sound that Belohlavek draws from the London Philharmonic. Right from the start it's obvious that the conductor has focussed the musicians on the tone colours they produce: the strings' vibrato in the Prelude is finely co-ordinated and there's no doubt of Belohlavek's wishes regarding tempo and accent. The opera simply flies by, which is not something one can often say of Tristan performances; and as darkness falls on the ill-fated lovers, so too does the orchestral timbre become more sombre and heavy. Whilst Daniel Barenboim's conducting of the 1983 Bayreuth production (available on Deutsche Grammophon DVD) remains definitive for some, I find a greater fluidity about Belohlavek's interpretation. It helps that the sound quality is far superior in this Opus Arte release compared with the false 'surround sound' on DG; and I also prefer the fact that the Glyndebourne production was recorded live, whereas at least part of the Barenboim performance was dubbed due to the vocal demands of the opera.

However, I'm less of a fan of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Glyndebourne production, which is perfectly inoffensive but says relatively little about the piece. Directors seem not to know how to treat this work, either opting for a crazy postmodern approach which makes nonsense of the story or going for a literal representation of the plot that does nothing to probe the psychological tensions of, to take the most obvious example, the forbidden love of Tristan and Isolde. Lehnhoff treads a line between these approaches, setting the story in a twisting vortex of steps, at the back of which is a contrastingly-lit opening to accentuate the epiphany of various characters. In other words, there is no attempt to represent the ship, garden or castle, which is reasonable enough; Lehnhoff sees this acting space as both a 'womb' (representing love and sex) and a 'cage' (signifying the illicitness of the relationship), also describing it as the human 'soul', which is what the opera is about in his opinion. Having made this gesture, however, the singers tend to act in a fairly naturalistic way, though this is all to the viewer's benefit on the small screen: we can ignore the set because we can't see it very often. However, I'm less impressed than other critics were about Robin Carter's lighting. While it's true that he casts the descent into night with an eerie dimness, I find the lack of contrasting colour in this production a serious letdown to the father of synaesthesia (the perception of colour in music). This problem also lies with Roland Aeschlimann's monochrome sets. On the other hand there is something very assured about the acting in this performance, a result no doubt of Glyndebourne's extensive rehearsal periods, and there's none of the clichéd self-conscious 'operatic' delivery from any of the singers.

Tristan from GlyndebourneHeading the cast as an ideal Isolde is Swedish soprano Nina Stemme (who has recently withdrawn from Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden). A more completely satisfying performance of the role could not be imagined. She has the voice for it, strong from top to bottom; she has the stamina for it, giving the final scene as much energy as her first appearance; and perhaps most importantly, she understands Isolde and her dilemmas. Whilst there is plenty of detail given to individual words and phrases, the quality I admire the most is the simplicity with which she delivers so much of the text. The Liebestod is a key example: she rises from the back of the stage and socks the music to the audience with uncomplicated resignation. For once, it seems that the fuss made about a star artist is all justified.

I heard bad things of Robert Gambill's Tristan, but while it may be the case that he is flattered by the DVD medium, in all honesty I was both moved and impressed by his performance. While Ben Heppner would be more vocally lavish, Gambill is by no means an inadequate singer, and when he shows strain in the third act it's all to the enhancement of the drama (though I could do without the beads of sweat dripping off his and the other singers' faces being captured in such minute intensity). I really believed in this pair of lovers and Gambill deserves his fair share of the credit.

René Pape is predictably captivating as King Marke, a generous performance that puts Covent Garden's apparent neglect of him to shame; Bo Skovhus is a sensitive Kurwenal and Katarina Karneus is sympathetic and multi-faceted as Brangäne, though not quite the equal of Hanna Schwarz on the Barenboim recording. Praise is also due to Stephen Gadd's Melot, Timothy Robinson's confident Sailor/Shepherd and outstanding singing from the Glyndebourne Chorus. While it has its shortcomings, this is a reliable Tristan and one well worth revisiting.

By Dominic McHugh