16 September 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (T. Kerl, A. Kampe, S. Connolly, G. Zeppenfeld, A. Dobber; Glyndebourne GFOCD 019-09)

Richard Wagner: TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (Glyndebourne GFOCD 019-09)

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Tristan und Isolde—T. Kerl (Tristan), A. Kampe (Isolde), S. Connolly (Brangäne), G. Zeppenfeld (König Marke), A. Dobber (Kurwenal), T. Scheunemann (Melot), P. Gijsbertsen (Ein junger Seemann), A. Kennedy (Ein Hirt), R. Mosley-Evans (Ein Steuermann); The Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski [Recorded ‘live’ at Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, England, during performances in August 2009; Glyndebourne GFOCD 019-09; 3CD, 3:47:09; Available from Amazon, the Glyndebourne Shop, iTunes, and all major music retailers]

One of the rarest commodities in opera in the Twenty-First Century is self-cognizance, a quality as important for opera companies as for individual singers.  In an economic environment that has presented even the largest, most financially-solvent companies with tremendous challenges, too many companies have gambled on productions or whole seasons that mistook individual ambitions for legitimate artistic integrity, risking alienating dedicated audiences as standing endowments dwindled or were raided to produce temporary stability.  One of the most thrilling aspects of opera is the unexpected triumph of confounded expectations, however, and this recording of Tristan und Isolde is a product of one of the most successful operatic experiments of the past decade.  Many eyebrows were arched in doubt when it was announced that Glyndebourne’s 2003 season would feature the company’s first staging of a Wagner opera.  From the days of its founding, when Fritz Busch presided over Mozart productions that set new standards both for stylish singing and interpretations on an appropriate scale, Glyndebourne has been the foremost example of a company that understands its limitations and plans its seasons accordingly: risks have been taken, to be sure, but never without the potential consequences having been carefully assessed.  To stage a Wagner opera is a mammoth undertaking, and even companies with greater resources of space and funding than Glyndebourne have begrudgingly left the Bard of Bayreuth’s scores to larger houses.  What many performances during the past half-century have obscured is the fact that, despite their large orchestras and larger-than-life characters, Wagner’s operas are, in their purest forms, very intimate.  The passions of Tristan und Isolde are intensely personal, and performing the opera in a venue like Glyndebourne offers a rare opportunity to genuinely sing the opera on a scale that allows the emotions to simmer as the composer intended rather than shouting it to the last row of the highest balcony.  Like Fritz Busch’s Mozart performances and Vittorio Gui’s bel canto outings, Glyndebourne’s Tristan und Isolde proved a credit to the company and to Wagner, and this recording proves an important addition to the opera’s discography and a worthy celebration of the Wagner Bicentennial.

Any performance of Tristan und Isolde depends heavily upon the efforts of the orchestra and conductor, and this recording benefits enormously from the playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the conducting of Vladimir Jurowski.  Impressive, too, are the singers of the Glyndebourne Chorus, who produce wonderfully blended tone that is audibly shaped by the rich British tradition of choral singing but is never restricted by it.  Unquestionably one of the world’s foremost orchestras, the London Philharmonic have nonetheless never sounded better on records than in this performance.  The balance of the string playing is exceptional, and the woodwinds are beautifully recorded.  The harp, gloriously played by Helen Sharp, has greater prominence in the recorded balance than it often has in the opera house, and this contributes to the intimacy of the performance.  Under Maestro Jurowski’s baton, the orchestral playing is responsive to the demands of each scene.  The tension achieved in the moments before the Love Duet in Act Two is phenomenal and lends the subsequent duet a palpable erotic charge, and both the orchestra’s playing and the clarity with which it is recorded support the singer to render Isolde’s Liebestod a breathtaking catharsis.  The ‘Tristan chord’ that resounded through European musical circles like a volcanic eruption here sounds newly-minted.  Maestro Jurowski is one of today’s unsung heroes of opera: while the conductors favored with contracts with major record labels do combat with largely indifferent, uninspired performances, Maestro Jurowski quietly graces the world’s opera houses and concert halls with superbly uncluttered performances of the operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss.  In this performance of Tristan und Isolde, Maestro Jurowski focuses on realizing every musical and dramatic goal of Wagner’s score rather than seeking cheap effects or imposing qualities that seek to make the performance ‘his.’  Allowing the opera to reveal its power on its own terms is an approach that is virtually unique to Maestro Jurowski, however, and the emotional directness of the performance confirms how much more skill is required to conduct an opera like Tristan und Isolde idiomatically rather than idiosyncratically.

It is widely acknowledged that the principal rôles in Tristan und Isolde are extremely difficult to cast under the best of circumstances, but how many performances are marred by poor showings in supporting rôles!  Consistently strong casting of secondary parts is one of the glories of Glyndebourne, and the cumulative impact of this performance is enhanced by the excellent singing of the artists to whom supporting rôles are entrusted.  Vocally, the performance could hardly be launched more impressively than by the poised singing of the Shepherd of tenor Peter Gijsbertsen.  Mr. Gijsbertsen’s rôle is not large, but he sings appealingly in a part that can sink a performance of Tristan und Isolde before the vessel is out of the harbor when it is sung unimpressively.  Equally impressive is Andrew Kennedy’s Sailor, the plangent sound of Mr. Kennedy’s beautiful tenor allied with a Lieder singer’s formidable command of text.  Richard Mosley-Evans contributes strongly to Act Three as the Steersman, his exchanges with Kurwenal heightening the drama.  The Melot of Trevor Scheunemann, a wonderful singer too little represented on disc, is also a strong, bracingly masculine performance, the character’s duplicity convincingly portrayed without overwrought villainy: for once, it is possible to regard Melot as a viable rival for Isolde’s affection—in his own esteem, at least—rather than merely a jealous, petulant hothead.

Kurwenal is one of Wagner’s most ambiguous characters: central to the drama, he has some fine music but makes little impression in many performances.  Baritone Andrzej Dobber’s singing ensures that this is not the case in this performance.  Mr. Dobber finds in Kurwenal a virtually ideal rôle for his robust, slightly blunt voice, and he fully explores every dramatic opportunity offered by the music.  Despite the tough, sinewy quality of the voice, there is a certain measure of tenderness in this Kurwenal’s interactions with Tristan, as well as an audible sense of mystery that increases the rôle’s dramatic profile.  Mr. Dobber discloses a straightforward way with the text that is effective both on a broad scale and in small details.  If Mr. Dobber is a somewhat unlikely Wagnerian, he is in this performance a very successful one: it would be interesting to hear him as Klingsor in Parsifal in a venue like Glyndebourne, where he could sing the part without the need for forcing the voice.

Wagner lavished some of his best music for the bass voice on König Marke.  In a sense, Marke is like Gurnemanz but with considerably less to say: he is the moral axis upon which the drama turns, and it is his disappointment—he is too noble for anger—and magnanimity that expand the opera’s tragedy from a personal to a communal one.  Most of the accomplished Wagnerian basses of the past century have recorded Marke, and Georg Zeppenfeld joins their ranks with a memorable performance in this recording.  Mr. Zeppenfeld’s voice is one of the few heard in recent seasons that is equal to the demands of his rôle, and his singing is this performance is often masterful.  Not surprisingly, his diction is superb, but his phrasing is occasionally awkward.  The ease with which Mr. Zeppenfeld descends into his lower register is impressive, however, and the dignity with which he delivers Marke’s lines, completing avoiding any histrionic excesses, is touching and adds meaningfully to the understated eloquence of the performance.

In a large house like Covent Garden or the Metropolitan Opera, Sarah Connolly might struggle to be heard in some of Brangäne’s more extroverted moments, not least her outburst after Isolde’s Narration and Curse, when she is asked to soar to her top A over the full power of the orchestra.  Heard in the warm acoustic of Glyndebourne, her performance is little short of perfect, and her voice takes to Glyndebourne’s microphones winningly, sounding fresh and sparklingly beautiful in all registers.  All of the qualities that make a Brangäne unforgettable—insightful use of text, idiomatic phrasing, a warmly feminine timbre, audible concern for her mistress—are evident in Ms. Connolly’s singing throughout the performance.  Ms. Connolly does not possess the vocal amplitude of Christa Ludwig, but she shares Ludwig’s intelligence for adapting her voice to the demands of the music at hand and the space in which she is singing.  So affectionate and obviously prophetic are her exchanges with Isolde in Act One that the title princess seems more than usually ungrateful in ignoring Brangäne’s entreaties.  Ms. Connolly’s singing is so alert to emotional nuances that her hands can practically be heard shaking as she prepares the fateful love potion.  The great test of any Brangäne is her Watch in Act Two, and in this performance Ms. Connolly rises to the occasion with the unstinting radiance of a great singing actress.  Only lovers in the throes of an insurmountable passion could be oblivious to this Brangäne’s baleful warnings, and the terror in Ms. Connolly’s voice as she foretells Melot’s treachery is gripping.  The love with which this Brangäne addresses her mistress in Act Three is very moving.  Ms. Connolly has total command of her voice and knows precisely what she can do with it, and she provides as complete a performance of Brangäne as has ever been recorded, and the fact that she accomplishes this level of Wagner singing with a voice that is no less stylish in the music of Händel is remarkable.  More than in almost any other performance in recent years, one longs to know what becomes of Brangäne after her mistress’s death.  How many Brangänes inspire this sort of sympathy?

During the past decade, tenor Torsten Kerl has been gradually taking on heavier repertory, his Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio having been admired at Glyndebourne and his Kaiser in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten winning praise in a concert performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and scheduled to be heard at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2013 – 2014 Season.  Tristan is not a rôle than even a prodigiously-gifted tenor can afford to assume on a whim, and Mr. Kerl has generally exhibited a caution in pacing his career that suggests that he did not take on Tristan without feeling that the time was right.  In this performance, all of the strengths and weaknesses of Mr. Kerl’s singing at its best are in evidence.  Contrasting with the nasality of the timbre is Mr. Kerl’s reliable security in the upper register, something lacking in many Tristans.  In Act One, Mr. Kerl is attractively boyish, conversing with Isolde with deepening interest.  The brightness of the upper voice is telling in Act Two’s Love Duet, Mr. Kerl’s sensual exchanges with Isolde pouring out like molten silver.  Mr. Kerl’s vocal security permits close attention to the text, his efforts at poetic phrasing reaching fruition in an exceptionally nuanced, beautifully-voiced account of Tristan’s death scene.  The way in which Mr. Kerl’s Tristan reverts to the boyish wonder of Act One as he reacts to the sighting of Isolde’s ship in Act Three is sublime.  Many good Tristans are upset by the challenging tessitura of the death scene, but Mr. Kerl maintains excellent mastery of line even as the voice comes under attack by the vocal range.  He does not manage his generally wonderful performance without forcing the voice, but Mr. Kerl emerges with far fewer vocal wounds than many Tristans.

In addition to being one of the world’s reigning Sieglindes in performances of Wagner’s Die Walküre, a rôle that she recorded to acclaim with Valery Gergiev, Anja Kampe was lauded opposite Mr. Kerl as Leonore in Glyndebourne’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, also available on CD.  In the era in which Kirsten Flagstad sang Sieglinde and Leonore, these rôles might have been thought apt training grounds for Isolde, but subsequent generations have suggested otherwise.  In recent years, singers who have excelled in all three rôles have been woefully few, and one of the best of them—Waltraud Meier—is a mezzo-soprano!  Like Ms. Connolly’s Brangäne, Ms. Kampe’s Isolde would be sorely tested in larger houses, but at Glyndebourne she finds an ideal setting for what proves to be a marvelous conception of the rôle.  It must be said from the start that Ms. Kampe’s voice is not an ideal Isolde instrument, at least not along traditional lines: the timbre is more penetrating than truly beautiful, and the upper register can be raucous, especially when under pressure.  Wisely, Ms. Kampe does not linger over the highest notes in this performance—which, of course, is what Wagner intended, as none of the famously exposed top notes is long sustained in the score.  In the Narration and Curse in Act One, there is crushing sadness as Isolde sings of the death of her betrothed, Morold, and her indignation builds to a blazing climax as she contemplates Tristan’s escape from justice.  No other Isolde on records leans quite so strongly into the text as Ms. Kampe does in her singing of the line, ‘ich ließ es fallen’ (‘I let it [the sword that she held ready to punish Tristan] fall’), elucidating her shame and self-reproach for having failed to take vengeance on Tristan when he lay incapacitated at her feet.  Ms. Kampe’s singing of the Curse is powerful but also tinged by sorrow: these are more ambiguous sentiments than Martha Mödl’s all-consuming anger or Astrid Varnay’s wounded pride.  The high notes do not come without effort, but they come without fail.  It is all the more surprising, then, that the fearsome pair of top Cs in the Love Duet are brilliantly delivered.  Ms. Kampe’s Isolde and Ms. Connolly’s Brangäne seem more like sisters than mistress and servant, a Wagnerian Norma and Adalgisa, and there is less haughtiness in Ms. Kampe’s Isolde than in many performances of the part.  The refulgence of Ms. Kampe’s singing in the Love Duet is magnificent, and she and Mr. Kerl seem to be the rare Tristan and Isolde who are listening to rather than merely singing at one another.  In Act Three, as Isolde’s disbelief and fear are transformed into acceptance and realization of purpose, Ms. Kampe’s voice takes on a perceptible brightness: drained of the darker colorations of regret and uncertainty, the voice moves through the mounting rapture of the Liebestod with golden tone.  A small miscue in the Liebestod is remedied by Ms. Kampe’s admirable breath control, and if her final high F-sharp does not conform to Wagner’s pianissimo marking it certainly conveys the transcendence of terrestrial pain.  Many latter-day Isoldes either act or sing the part compellingly: few singers achieve both distinctions.  Like Hildegard Behrens, Ms. Kampe does not possess a voice of the proportions traditionally associated with Isolde’s music, but traditions do not sing Isolde.  Ms. Kampe is not a conventional, Hochdramatische Isolde: rather, in ways that elude so many sopranos, even those with gigantic voices, she is Wagner’s Isolde.

It should surprise no one that, having taken on a project, Glyndebourne devoted the full measure of their resources to seeing that project realized with the extraordinarily high level of achievement typical of the company throughout its history.  A decade ago, many opera lovers questioned why Glyndebourne would grapple with the operas of Richard Wagner: this recording cancels any doubts about the suitability of the venue for Wagner performances.  As with the music of any composer, the most critical element of performing Wagner’s operas successfully is giving the music its due.  The orchestras are large, the dramas are made of such stuff as the annihilation of humanity, and the demands made of the singers are formidable, but the operas of Wagner do not require multi-million-dollar productions in halls that seat thousands: they need the attention of musicians who love them, understand them, and give them the best of their artistry, and Glyndebourne’s recording of their 2009 revival of Tristan und Isolde preserves an occasion on which all of those needs were fulfilled.  This is a Tristan und Isolde with which the Wagnerian will need no potion in order to fall in love.