Glyndebourne's celebrated production of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Tristan und Isolde is gravely beautiful, haunting and meditative. Nina Stemme's Isolde and Robert Gambill's Tristan are matched by a superb performancce from Ren... more »e Pape.« less
To die in order to live: a brilliant performance of Tristan
Mike Birman | Brooklyn, New York USA | 02/27/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"By Wagner's own written comments, composition of Tristan und Isolde was inspired by his love affair with Mathilde Wesendonck and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Mathilde had married the silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, who was a great admirer of Wagner's music, and after he and Mathilde met the composer in Zurich in 1852, he placed a large cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal. By 1857, Wagner had become thoroughly enamored with Mathilde. Wagner wrote voluminously and admitted to returning the many favors Otto had done for him by seeking the romantic favors of his wife. Wagner maintained a relationship with Mathilde for some time while composing Tristan. Tristan was composed between 1857 and 1859, premiering 10 June 1865 under the baton of Hans von Bülow in Munich, despite the fact that Wagner was now having an affair with his wife, Cosima. All three wrote extensively about this strange turn of events. Wagner, of course, was still married to his first wife Minna. Tristan is the quintessential opera about eros and it is natural to wonder to what degree these romantic entanglements influenced its genesis. The complexity of Tristan insured that critical opinion was initially less than favorable. Eduard Hanslick, the most influential 19th Century music critic, said that Tristan "reminded him of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel." Opinion quickly changed and Tristan has remained in the repertory ever since. These events, all carefully verified as to their factual nature by musicologists, make up some of the historical background to perhaps the single greatest opera, certainly the most influential, of the 19th century. Tristan is without question a brilliant opera and its importance in musical history is without precedent.
The score of Tristan und Isolde has often been called a landmark in the development of Western music. From its opening chord, the famous 'Tristan Chord' f-b-d#-g# which resolves to another dissonant chord, there is a feeling of ambiguous tonality throughout the opera. Techniques used by Wagner were to prove influential in the gradual movement away from tonality that was the hallmark of the 20th Century. Hans von Bulow, who experienced Tristan's creation at close hand, shows how Wagner's contemporaries were aware of the degree to which the opera was the beginning of modern music. In a letter, he wrote 'Nobody had expected Wagner to write such music. It creates a direct connection to late Beethoven .... The musician who still refuses to believe in progress here has no ears!' Every performance of Tristan carries this accumulated historical baggage to some degree.
The 2003 production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff of Tristan und Isolde represents the first introduction of a Wagner opera into the Glyndebourne repertoire. It confronts the historical baggage directly, reducing Tristan's complex web of symbols and meaning into elemental images. The opening act occurs in front of a geometric spiral that represents the womb, a stark clue to the inner-directed and intimate nature of this production. Light and shadow envelop the stage. Settings for the action: ship, garden, castle, are treated as scenic cyphers and are judged as not requiring scenic representation. According to the producer, the setting of the plot is the soul. "The soul's cosmogony can be experienced even before the realities of time and space are neutralised at the opera's end." Tristan is about the conflict between night and meaning. Imprisoned in the dungeon of the world, the only freedom is death. Death is revealed as savior and as love's only safe harbor, and its symbol or sign is night. What passes for life and for meaning is bound to light and the daytime. Tristan occurs somewhere in the interstices between light and darkness. We infer it from Wagner's comments and directions.
This production is brilliant in its simplicity: acting and singing are appropriate in their intimacy, superb in their execution. There are no weak links. Nina Stemme is a wonderful Isolde. Robert Gambill an excellent Tristan. Bo Skovhus as Kurwenal and Rene Pape as King Marke are exemplary. The London Philharmonic play magnificently under Jiri Belohlavek. From top to bottom, this production exhibits intelligence and taste. The Opus Arte presentation is excellent, as well. Six hours of material is spread across three discs. The recording in both PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 surround sound is warmly natural and lifelike, complimenting the production's warmth and intimacy. The enclosed glossy booklet is informative. There are more than two hours of film extras included.
Now my favorite DVD of Tristan, this is a brilliant production that treats its audience with respect. Lovingly produced, it invites repeated viewing as a method of enticing Tristan's meaning from beneath the shroud of darkness. Glyndebourne's inaugural Wagner entry is a profound success. Most strongly recommended.
Another wonderful Tristan
Archie | Ottawa ON Canada | 03/01/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"After getting the video of the Ponnelle/Barenboim/Johanna Meier "Tristan und Isolde" which was delisted many years ago, and while I was waiting for it to come out on DVD cleaned up with a better quality of sound, I bought other versions. For my taste, I found them all substandard (see my review of the aforementioned "Tristan"). Then it was issued as a DVD and judging from the many positive reviews most people found it as excellent a production as I did.
Now there is an embarasse de richesse because another excellent production has been released -- different, but equally excellent. The Ponnelle is more traditional, with a major twist to the ending; whereas the Lehnhoff is more stylised, but faithful to the stated intention of Wagner.
There is but one set for the three acts, a series of circular and semicircular steps which enclose the stage. But the very imaginative lighting profoundly changes the space and moods. At times it seems very confining, at others it is liberating; at times dark and brooding, at others warm and optimistic. But the very spareness of the set keeps the focus on the what and why of this powerful opera. It is very imaginative and works very well for this production.
Opus Arte, as usual, has served up a technically superlative production with first rate addenda.
I am grateful to Mike Birman for his account of the background to the opera and this production. It saves me from writing something very similar. (Since both of our reviews were written, we have had a correspondence in the "comment" section as we straightened out our mutual misunderstandings. That remains for those interested. He has since changed a bit of his opening background paragraph, so I am changing my response to it.) I now fully agree with his facts and tone of his account. He wrote, "Tristan is the quintessential opera about eros and it is natural to wonder to what degree these romantic entanglements influenced its genesis". I certainly agree, and would like to add another possible example.
Since I referred to the twist in the Ponnelle production ending, and since other commentators in reviewing that production have given it away, as it were, as well as adversely criticised it I feel free to describe it here. In that version, Isolde does not come to Tristan at the end -- she is an hallucination, Tristan's unfulfilled desire. As I wrote in response to that criticism: "It may be different, but in light of Wagner's life at the time he wrote it, perhaps it makes sense. His relationship with Mathilda Weisendonck had broken up. Many commentators have written that this explains the yearning so powerfully represented in the music. Perhaps subconsciously he never expected that Isolde would turn up. I can invision Ponnelle in Heaven saying to Wagner, as Brunnhilde said to Wotan, "I might not have done what you commanded, but I did what you wanted".
I also have no hesitation in giving this production the full five stars. Where I differ is in a matter of taste. Mr. Birman says that this is his favourite DVD of this opera. (Well, as they say on the Canadian East Coast, "Some likes an apple and some likes an onion".) My favourite DVD production remains the Ponnelle/Bareboim/Johanna Meier one. This, despite my finding Rene Pape's King Marke by far the best I have seen. Stemme, Gambill and Karneus all sing extremely powerfully and well, and their acting is also first rate; but their interpretations are not as emotionally nuanced as those of Meier, Kollo and Schwarz -- hence my preference.
To repeat, it is a matter of personal taste. This is a wonderful production in all respects, and it is really unfair to make comparisons -- not that that has stopped me. I am glad to have both and, unlike all the others I unfortunately purchased over the years, I will return to them both -- often. I am grateful to Opus Arte and DGG for these wonderful interpretations.
PS August 26 2008 I have just seen the Barenboim/Muller Tristan with Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem. As a result, for what it is worth, that is now my second choice and this drops to third. The reason is that I have become increasingly less enchanted by Robert Gambill's singing."
Guillermo Nanez Falcon | 04/22/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is one of the most dramatically gripping operas on DVD that I have ever seen. The production from Glyndebourne is conceived to convey the intense drama of this tragic love story visally and musically. The unit set is unusual, a concentric crescent that changes appearance radically with lighting. The effect is highly dramatic. The singers are superb. Nina Stemme is a fierce, angry Isolde in the first act narrative, but then she and Tristan take the potion. WOW. The second act builds beautifully to the love duet and then the discovery of the lovers, in which Rene Pape as King Marke conveys his sense of betrayal with dignity and understanding, a very moving moment. In the final act, Robert Gambill is heartbreaking as the dying Tristan, and the Liebestod is filmed and sung for stunning dramatic impact as the image fades into a pinpoint of light. Katarina Karneus (Brangaena) and Bo Skovhus (Kurwenal) are superb in the important supporting roles. Wagner lovers, do not miss this."
Dr. Fernando Cordova | San Juan, Puerto Rico United States | 04/05/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This the the third Tristan to appear this year, not too long after the Met's DVD issue. As usual all of these have something very strong going for them,and for fully committed Wagnerians like myself, we take all three and know I will view them repeatedly. The Glyndebourne production,minimal, is my choice, as it has the capital virtue of not introducing the distracting gimmicks we find in Bayreuth, where Isolde's train in Act 1 is absurd, and the end is controversial. In Barcelona the sets are rather ugly and nonsensical, and only the third act is relatively free of fault.The Met's presentation is silly and King Marke's crown is objectionable. When it comes to the leads, Nina Stemme as Isolde trumps all her competition. She has a lovely presence, is a subtle actress, with a wonderful lyrical voice. Polaski is a great artist, but her voice has always had some problematic spots, and Johanna Meier, a very fine artist, pales besides these two. Robert Gambill's Tristan has to fall second to Treleaven, who in the Barcelona performance, is the only Tristan who in spite of some bizarre gestures and vocal inconsistency, has kept my attention fully riveted to him through what can be an interminable Act. Kollo is too expressionless besides these others. Of course, Ben Heppner has the most beautiful voice, but alas, his Isolde! The supporting cast in all the three sets is excellent, in Barcelona maybe more than that, especially Eric Halfvarson's Marke. Of course Rene Pape has a marvelous voice, but Halfvarson, more human, and motile, is what I prefer. As I said, Wagnerians will want all these sets."
Alonso Jordan | Arizona | 12/05/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Upon watching this production of Tristan und Isolde, I immediately fell into this kind of avant-garde world which is really psychological. The first impression was that of a feeling of pathos, as we entered into Isolde's minds and thought just based on Stemme's look on her face. As the opera progressed, I was very impressed at the stamina and careful and thoughtful acting of all of the singers! I was quite amazed at the intensity and careful character development. I did not fall asleep, I remained there transfixed at the glory of Wagner's music, the voices, and the production. True gesamtkunswerk.