Six of the best... productions of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
Tristan und Isolde is the most important work of one of opera's greatest masters: Richard Wagner. We select some of the finest interpretations by the great conductors...
Fuelled by a passionate affair with Mathilde Wesendonck and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, Wagner’s creativity flourished to form his revolutionary masterwork, Tristan und Isolde.
When the opera was premiered in 1865, it laid the foundation for 20th-century harmonic development. The story centres on one of the great European romances, stretching right back to the Celtic period. It was said that the love between Tristan and Isolde was so great that consummation was only possible in death. Such intelligent design naturally inspires numerous interpretations, through stage productions and recordings. We select some of the finest...
Herbert von Karajan’s 1972 production with the Berlin Philharmonic has long divided critics because some believe the performance is too studio-bound and that there is not enough ingenuity in the production. But this recording endures because Karajan’s baton summons such wondrous charms from the orchestra, which in turn galvanize the singers. The brass are treated with due temperance, and Karajan commands the strings in such a way that respects Wagner’s famously extensive note at the beginning of the score. This spine-tingling performance captures both the power and the tenderness of the opera brilliantly. The thrilling conclusion to Act I is hammered out at a terrific tempo, rousing any budding conductor’s hands into the air as the music thrusts towards a close. In contrast, passages like the dream music in Act II are granted apt softness, and Wagner’s genius for gentle orchestration is showcased perfectly. As for the final Liebestod, soprano Helga Dernesch burns with white-hot passion, complementing the rich harmony that breaks through from the cellos.
Daniel Barenboim’s 2007 production at La Scala (available on DVD) marries an impressive set design with superb acting. Both are displayed admirably in the first act: the former throughout and the latter especially when the lovers are experiencing the effects of the love potion for the first time. The lack of a conducting score (bearing in mind that Tristan lasts more than four hours) proves that Barenboim’s understanding of the opera has improved greatly from his early recordings at Bayreuth in the 1980s, and this is bolstered by his claim to have conducted Tristan more than any other opera. Soprano Waltraud Meier gives an intoxicating performance as Isolde. The supremacy of her portrayal lies in sheer dramatic conviction; she is a captivating actress and has the voice to match. Nothing looks or sounds forced. Moreover, the trickle of blood running down her head in the final scene is a masterstroke. It adds an original dimension to the Liebestod: a visible fusion of Isolde’s emotional and physical yearning. Wagner would probably have approved.
Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1952 Royal Opera production is generally the one that most other interpretations are measured against, as Furtwängler is often called the greatest Wagnerian of the 20th century. The conductor illuminates slightly different sounds to Karajan in places, which is worthy both of praise and criticism. It merits in suiting the orchestra’s sound to that particular set of singers (soprano Kirsten Flagstad, tenor Ludwig Suthaus etc), but this means that the total body of sound falls short of Karajan’s. The tempo, too, is sometimes accelerated in the wrong places. Nevertheless, this recording certainly stands the test of time. Besides, it contains all that spiritual darkness that Furtwängler is so respected for emphasising in Wagner.
Sir Georg Solti’s 1960 production with the Vienna Philharmonic has the advantage of soprano Birgit Nilsson as Isolde; a truly passionate Wagnerian with a fairly mature voice by this point. That said, tenor Fritz Uhl provides a good performance of Tristan that is faithful to the music. Solti’s tempo choices are commendable, and somehow he ensures that the singers don’t appear strained when battling with the orchestra. Sometimes, however, lengthy brass notes disrupt the rhythmic pulse, and cause cadences to lose their finesse. But the conductor makes up for this by suspending the cadences for a satisfying duration.
Sir Reginald Goodall’s 1981 production with the Welsh National Opera is also acclaimed for good reason. His handling of the prelude to Act I is exceptional, underlining harmonic string elements that are clouded by the melody in other recordings. Surprisingly, this continues throughout, making it another version that is faithful to Wagner’s note regarding the special intensity of the string section. The voices of soprano Linda Esther Gray and tenor John Mitchinson weave themselves together wonderfully in the title roles and the conductor often lets the harp complement them well in the softer passages. To match this, Goodall’s tempos are superior, even to Karajan’s, making this production a delightful and unexpected contender for the best Tristan recording.
Carlos Kleiber’s 1982 production with Staatskapelle Dresden benefits in particular from good German enunciation, which is terrifically difficult when you’re competing against a Wagnerian orchestra. Credit to soprano Margaret Price especially, who infuses Isolde’s verse with a Mozartian sensuality – a rare treat when hearing Wagner. She sings with a portamento style traditionally suited to the bel canto phrasing of earlier Italian opera, but moulds it with Wagner rather well. Kleiber also manages to bring out the strings and the harp quite strongly, which some conductors find hard with Tristan.
By Edward Christian-Hare
Neil McKim is the former Production Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He is now the production editor of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.