I’ve been looking really hard for a video recording of Tristan und Isolde that I felt I could recommend because, frankly, nothing is worse than a badly executed Tristan as those who suffered through the Met HD broadcast a few years ago will know. In the 2007 La Scala recording I have found one I feel confident about. Is it perfect? No. A perfect Tristan is probably beyond mere mortals. I’m never sure whether I find it more astonishing that anyone can sing this music or that a composer might have imagined that he could find people who could. That said, the La Scala recording is very close to an ideal Gesamtkunstwerk.
It’s a collaboration between Patrice Chéreau and Daniel Barenboim. There’s no big concept. A single set, mildly reconfigured, serves as ship, forest and castle. Costumes are timeless. The drama lies in the detailed direction of the actors and their interpretations of the roles. Given that, in a sense, not much happens in Tristan their ability to inject drama beyond the music is really quite striking.
The stand out performer is Waltraud Meier as Isolde. She completely inhabits the role and sings splendidly in both the big Act 2 duets and in the Liebestod, where Chéreau throws in a most striking touch. As the Liebestod builds, Isolde starts to bleed from her head and ends up pretty much covered in the stuff. She’s well backed up by Ian Storey’s robust Tristan. Matti Salminen is a sympathetic and powerful King Mark and Michelle de Young a competent Brangäne. It took me a while to warm up to Gerd Grochowski’s Kurwenal which, initially, I thought a bit underpowered but he grew on me and I thought his performance in Act 3 very fine. Barenboim is at his best too. His command of building and resolving tension is exquisite and he gets a taut performance out of the La Scala orchestra and chorus who have often not impressed me when pushed beyond their Italian comfort zone.
Technically the recording is OK. It’s spread across three DVDs and the picture copes quite well with the generally dark staging. The DTS sound is adequate but one really would like to see a Tristan on Blu-ray with PCM 5.0 sound. It needs it as few other works do! The video direction, by Patrizia Carmine, is a bit quirky. There are lots of fades and superpositions. One has to sympathize. It’s a dark and rather static production which makes video direction hard and, at least, it’s better than the monstrosity of the Met HD broadcast. There are no extras on the disks. I’m not sure about the documentation because if there was any it was missing from my copy. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.