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Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, WWV 90
Andreas Schager (Tristan), Rachel Nicholls (Isolde), Michelle Breedt (Brangäne), John Relyea (King Marke), Brett Polegato (Kurwenal), Andrew Rees (Melot), Gregory Bonifatti (a shepherd), Gianfranco Montresor (a steersman), Rainer Trost (voice of a young sailor), The Orchestra and Chorus of the Rome Opera, Roberto Gabbiani (chorus master) Daniele Gatti (conductor), Pierre Audi (stage director), Christof Hetzer (set and costume designer), Jean Kalman (lighting designer), Annalisa Buttò (video director)
Recording: Rome Opera House, Rome, Italy (November 2019) – 239’
C Major Entertainment # 752208 (or Blu-ray # 752304) (Distributed by Naxos of America) – PCM Stereo, PSM 5.1 – Picture format: NTSC – Region O – Booklet in English, French and German – Subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Japanese

There are challenges when making a film of a stage production, and even greater challenges when the work in question is Tristan und Isolde. This production from the Rome Opera and filmed by RAI (Radiotelevisione italiana) is both strongly cast and beautifully conducted by Daniele Gatti. The orchestra sounds terrific too. However, Pierre Audi’s production has a shaky focus from the start, then falters badly in Act II and never recovers.

The moment when things fall apart occurs in Act II when the two lovers meet and embark upon rapturous passages that eventually lead to the love duet. For a lengthy period they do not look at one another, nor are they that close together - each could be reading a teleprompter placed in the wings. It’s as if Pierre Audi simply gave up even trying to create a convincing stage picture. Despite the fine conducting, the energy level dwindles.

(In contrast this 1995 production from Bayreuth demonstrates how singers can interact with one another throughout even the lengthiest passages.)

The opening set has a desolate aspect which is not unusual for the work, and is certainly appropriate. It has a Japanese look, but with surrealist overtones. Occupying centre stage at one point is a large boulder that resembles the one featured in paintings by René Magritte. The boulder soon morphs into something else which is typical of the ever-shifting stage picture.

As to the singers: Andreas Schager has a well-established career in this fach, but the long stretches when he is asked to just sing in a dramatic void, makes one weary of his character. When he really has something to do, at last, in Act III with Tristan’s delirium leading to his death, he is first rate.

Rachel Nicholls has a voice that lies on the lyrical (vs dramatic) side for Isolde, which is not a negative observation. Her voice is very attractive, and she maintains an alert dramatic presence. Things go awry in Act III, but I think it is a technical problem. The Liebestod comes across very well, helped by the lighting effect which creates a glowing nimbus around her.

Both John Relyea as King Marke and Brett Polegato as Kurwenal are ideal in their roles. Each benefit in having relatively succinct scenes...they look terrific in their close-ups, and they are in fine, steady voice.

Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne is kept on the sidelines through most of the action, but, vocally, she is fine. One directorial innovation has her stabbed by Kurwenal in Act III (when the royal party arrives and Kurwenal, trying to protect Tristan, kills Melot). She then has to stagger about as she delivers her final lines.

Melot is a brief role and is portrayed as a hunched cripple who hobbles with the aid of a crutch, thus visually a cliché villain from a folktale. I suppose this stereotypical characterization makes him more memorable.

In addition to the shifting stage elements there are other visual distractions that don’t seem to have a point. In Act III, for example, Kurwenal, who earlier had a Japanese hairstyle complete with samurai topknot, appears with a trim, modern haircut. Isolde, who in the first act has long, flowing hair, appears with it roughly shorn. Are these hairstyles of some significance? (Why bother?)

Another startling disjoint occurs in Act III when Rachel Nicholls at first sounds like a soubrette, leading one to suspect either there earlier had been technical help in making her voice sound better than it did in the theatre (unlikely), or a technical glitch at that point with the placement of her head microphone. (The small microphones placed at singers’ hairlines are visible in close-ups.) Her voice comes into focus as the act progresses.

A radical proposal: Wagnerites would protest, but I wonder if a more potent film could be made with passages cut. [I am reminded of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1986 film of Verdi’s Otello, with Plácido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli and Justino Díaz. In the final act the director cut Desdemona’s “Willow Song” and Ave Maria, lengthy and beautiful arias that contain no dramatic action.] I can’t imagine anyone doing this with Tristan; the great streams of poetry and music, although devoid of action, are essential to the work even if truncation might be appreciated by non-Wagnerites (and would they want to see it anyway?)

It could very well be that the production had more impact in the theatre than it has on the DVD, although I cannot see how the dramatic failings are the fault of video director Annalisa Buttò.

At the end fewer than five minutes are given over to curtain calls. The first to appear are four men in technician outfits; I presume they are the sound technicians for RAI. Overall, the applause sounds meagre but the singers receive a decent amount and then the production team is greeted with jeering, which Pierre Audi and his cohorts impassively endure. The applause quickly diminishes and when the camera shows the auditorium there is hardly anyone left.

Michael Johnson




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