Tristan und Isolde Music-drama in three acts to a libretto by the composer
Tristan John Treleaven
Isolde Christine Brewer
Brangäne Dagmar Pecková
Kurwenal Boaz Daniel
König Marke Peter Rose
Melot Jared Holt
Shepherd Eugene Ginty
Steersman Jonathan Lemalu
A Young Sailor Mark Le Brocq
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded at concerts at the Barbican Centre, London 12 December 2002 (Act One), 5 February 2003 (Act Two) & 19 February 2003
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: February 2007
CD No: WARNER CLASSICS
2564 62964-2 (4 CDs)
Duration: 4 hours 9 minutes
Recorded before EMI’s already-issued much-heralded last-ever studio-based opera recording of this work, with Plácido Domingo and Nina Stemme in the title roles, Warner’s release has taken a little while to reach the shelves and joins an ever-growing market of live recordings, some populated by many of the great Wagnerians of the last century caught in the theatre with all the urgency and immediacy of stage performance, and as such faces some stiff competition. Yet, as this was taped at concert performances it provides a sort of half-way house between those occasionally clinical or sterile studio recordings and those rough-edged theatre ones with their acoustic vagaries (including noisy prompters!) and vocal or orchestral mishaps that can irritate on repeated listening. As it was recorded in one-act chunks the singers retain a vocal freshness to the end that they might not manage over a long evening, and fluffs are few and far between. Yet, by the standards of the past not all the singers are top-notch, but there is an overall evenness to the casting that pays some dividends, and some would be high on the lists for their roles for directors today.
If one rendition remains in the memory it is probably Christine Brewer’s Isolde. This was one of her early forays into singing the part and, as was apparent at the concerts, it was already a remarkably multi-faceted interpretation, securely voiced, keenly enunciated, and refreshingly feminine. She may lack the steel of Nilsson or the amazing tonal richness of Flagstad, but in terms of realising the many and complex moods of the heroine Brewer brings her all-round musicianship and silvery voice. She gets off to a cracking start with all the top Gs and A flats of her first utterances gleaming. Her Act One narration is vividly painted, and has a sure sweep and sense of the architecture. Here she is much aided by Donald Runnicles’s propulsive tempos and singer-friendly accompaniment. In the big sing of the second act duet she is occasionally a little cautious-sounding, but voices wonderfully the soft “Als für ein fremdes Land…” passage towards the close of the act. Her ‘Liebestod’ is typically expansive, although the tone occasionally hardens. With more experience in the role, especially on stage, her interpretation will surely deepen, and so one hopes that later performances in her career will be recorded, leaving this as a worthy document of a rendition of great promise subsequently realised!
Sadly, Brewer’s confident start shows up deficiencies elsewhere. Dagmar Pecková, even from her first appearance, does not seem at all at ease with the role of Brangäne. All recent recordings have under-cast this crucial role, including the aforementioned EMI. Pecková never sings this role with the fluidity and beauty of tone of which one knows her capable. Sometimes, especially in her spiky ventures above the stave, she sounds really quite squally and almost breathless, fatally so in the Act Two warnings. In the lower reaches of the role she comes across as under-powered, and one feels that Pecková’s rather over-vehement articulation of the text is symptomatic of this over-parting. This Brangäne sounds rather niggling and needling rather than the confused and concerned confidante she should. Just playing a few minutes of Christa Ludwig’s rendition in the live Bayreuth performance under Karl Böhm (DG) shows what is missing here.
Boaz Daniel’s supple and solid voice is a welcome contribution to the vocal line-up, albeit his is a rather straightforward interpretation, almost prosaic. He could probably benefit from more stage experience, to be able to communicate more of the character audibly.
I recall liking Peter Rose’s human and young-sounding König Marke at the Barbican performances. There his long familiarity with the role was very telling, and it remains so on disc. He makes his distressed Act Two outpourings over his betrayal very compelling, and seemingly short. The range of the part holds no terrors for him – he does himself credit with this performance.
The smaller parts are all well enough sung, with Mark Le Brocq’s young sailor falling mellifluously on the ear, and Jared Holt’s Melot registering enough as a character given the little he has to sing.
Which leaves John Treleaven’s Tristan, which is something of a mixed bag. There is much to admire here and the role suits him rather better than Siegfried (which he has performed at the Royal Opera House over the last two seasons, and will reprise in the Ring Cycles in the autumn of 2007). This is largely because much of the role lies in the lower reaches of the tenor register, and yet Treleaven has the ability of ring out when the need arises. His tenor tone has an inherent mournful quality about it that suits the brooding Tristan of Act One and the ill and despairing Tristan of Act Three. He closes Act Two with real style, the sorrow and self-loathing of the character is all-there in the voice quality – the best part of his assumption. Where he appears less happy is in the ecstatic moments that follow the drinking of the love-potion and also the eager passages of the night-time tryst with Isolde in Act Two. There the tone quality lacks the joy and abandon ideally required. Treleaven’s commitment to the part is never in doubt, especially in the demanding final act, and here it is noticeable how particularly observant he is of the composer’s (sometimes-unreasonable) demands. In Act Two Treleaven also demonstrates that he can sing in a rapt, if not always entirely secure mezza voce when the need arises. His German is also pretty idiomatic, and shows his experience of serving many years in German opera houses. Although his Isolde outclasses him, Treleaven’s is still an appreciable performance – and given that Tristans do not exactly grow on trees it is one that would grace many top-ranking stages. The problem is that he pales in comparison with some illustrious predecessors.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra is not often found in a theatre pit and perhaps does not have the music flowing through its veins. The musicians give a most creditable performance and once into their stride play with a lack of routine that is very refreshing. In the Barbican’s less-than-forgiving acoustic the orchestra produces some rounded and lush playing and overall the balance is pretty fine. One notices many figures in the lower strings that often pass unremarkably, and some of the woodwind playing is outstanding, oboe and clarinet in particular, as is the cor anglais solo at the start of Act Three. Some of the spatial effects that did not work so well in the hall on the night – such as the off-stage brass – sound well on CD.
And on the whole the balance is favourable to the singers with the soloists to the front of the auditory stage. Maybe Apollo Voices is a little too in the background – the singers’ parts lack clarity. Runnicles, with all his opera house experience, steers a sure path through the work. Occasionally some of the tempos are a little too deliberate, and in some ways the performance only gets going after the Prelude has finished. There the overall effect is a bit too considered and lacking in mystery and atmosphere. Thereafter, things roll out impressively and consistently – the more so given the time that elapsed between the performances of each act.
Summing up, these discs represent a good audio reminder of some very enjoyable concerts. There is much to admire here, particularly from Brewer. However, many exceptionally vivid live performances of this work exist with starrier and more-balanced casts that undoubtedly have that extra tingle factor and whiff of greasepaint – something that this new version only finds sporadically.