Wagner: Tristan and Isolde

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: Opus Arte
WORKS: Tristan and Isolde
PERFORMER: Robert Dean Smith, Iréne Theorin, Michelle Breedt, Robert Holl, Jukka Rasilainen, Ralf Lukas, Clemens Bieber, Arnold Bezuyen, Martin Snell; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus/Peter Schneider; dir. Christoph Marthaler (Bayreuth, 2009)
CATALOGUE NO: OA 1033 D

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Here is a musically competent performance of Tristan und Isolde, and a weird production. It’s most surprising that the Bayreuth management should have thought it suitable for such rapid publication, since it’s not an impressive demonstration of prevailing standards in the Mecca of Wagnerians.

Peter Schneider, who conducts, takes a broad view of the score. It’s so broad that in each of the acts the tension drains out of the performance, nowhere more so than in the first Act’s long and increasingly tense scene between the two lovers before they declare their love. 

Isolde is sung by Iréne Theorin, who has the necessary power, but becomes shrill and constricted in her upper register. Robert Dean Smith holds his own as Tristan, which is quite a feat, but his voice is not beautiful, and he sings with only moderate expressiveness. The rest of the cast is decent, no more.

The production is set in the present, and glancing at it casually you might think you were looking at an episode of The Office. That is how everyone is dressed. Tristan and Isolde, inhibited characters lacking in social skills, sit on two stools side by side for their great duet in Act II, not looking at one another. Sometimes they make absurd, artificial gestures.  

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The best looking DVD of this opera is undoubtedly the one from Glyndebourne (on Opus Arte), and it is better conducted, but the duet has a 12-minute cut, where this one is complete. Michael Tanner