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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 12 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 37
Deutsche Oper Berlin's flawed but watchable Tristan
Arts & Entertainment
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Deutsche Oper Berlin's flawed but watchable Tristan

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
DEUTCHE OPER BERLIN
JAPAN TOUR 1993
ON BLU-RAY DISC


Over the decades, I have harvested sublime memories of performances of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde that will likely never be matched again. The first was the incredible Blanche Thebom in her 'watch music' during the love duet in the old mono recording conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. To this day I find her endless breath for the slow tempo taken by Furtwängler hard to believe, and the result was sublime beyond description. The most prized memory of all was what we affectionately called 'The Ben and Jane Show,' when Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen teamed up with director Francesca Zambello and a superb cast for Seattle Opera's production years ago. (After one of the nine of those performances I saw, including dress rehearsals, Ben's Act III taught me what it was like to be 'weak in the knees' from excess of joy.)

With memories like those and many others from seeing this favorite opera live in Berlin, NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco, I am quick to notice the faults in new performances or recordings. Such is the case with a new Blu-ray disc by the Deutsche Oper Berlin when on tour in Japan in 1993. Unfortunately, the stage at the NHK Hall in Tokyo contributed loud bass bumps from often-unseen footfalls (even from backstage) that surely could have been edited out with a more careful production of this disc. This happened most grievously during the love duet, when no one on stage was moving. Other than these intrusive and annoying bumps, the sound on this disc is fairly decent in the DTS HD Master Audio surround audio. There is no sense of the theater space, but there is likewise no distortion or lack of detail. The state of the art has happily advanced since 1993.

The performances captured here on two dates improved after a weak start. The 'Prelude' was pretty leaden and generated no atmosphere for what Speight Jenkins described as 'the drug trip' to follow. (This opera indeed seems trance-like both in the effect on the listener and in its dreamlike walk away from traditional tonality and, in the narrative, away from daytime responsibilities.) In Act One neither Gwyneth Jones nor René Kollo seemed especially involved in more than the struggle to make their voices work. While Ms. Jones had her famous wobble pretty well under control, I found her first act rather boring. Although her high C's were fabulous, her acting seemed too obvious. And her poor breath control forced her throughout the opera to take many more gulps of air than most Isoldes. Kollo was utterly wooden, with little to like about his tone and a troublesome wobble when forced to sing loud. Gerd Feldhoff as Kurwenal was, on the other hand, dynamic in his acting and more than adequate vocally. The singer who made watching Act One worthwhile was Hanna Schwarz as a Brangäne to remember, both vocally and dramatically. That such warm, beautiful and big sounds came from such a slim body is remarkable.

One trouble with the casting was the King Marke of Robert Lloyd. He was so stunningly attractive that one can hardly believe Isolde would ever see anything in René Kollo's plain looking Tristan. But then there's that love potion, leaving her no choice after all. Robert Lloyd was, along with Schwarz, the finest singer in the cast. His voice was perfectly suited to Marke, and his lovely legato made me swoon. He also had spectacularly beautiful costumes.

The sets were fairly minimal but effective. Stage direction had only a couple of unusual moments. The camera work too often focused for no apparent reason on those not singing.

As mentioned, things got better as the acts moved along. Ms. Jones did some very beautiful soft singing in the love duet, while Kollo took the easier path and kept it pretty loud. The big surprise was Kollo in Act Three. The problem with seeing the role of Tristan in a live performance is that most tenors have to save themselves for the arduous third act. With Ben Heppner, we didn't see that. His performance was consistently good throughout. Kollo, however, suddenly came alive in Act Three, both vocally and dramatically, in his three fever tantrums as he, mortally wounded, awaits Isolde's arrival. He gives us a very watchable act, capped off, of course, by Isolde's 'Liebestod.' Ms. Jones sang the final f-sharp in a lovely soft volume, but with a rather strange straight tone (no vibrato whatsoever), which is unusual for a long-held note.

While this was far from a great Tristan, overall, it certainly had its glories and remains worth watching.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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