There may be better video recordings of Tristan und Isolde than Daniel Barenboim and Heiner Müller’s 1995 Bayreuth collaboration but I haven’t seen one. It combines a deeply satisfying production, outstanding conducting and brilliant performances from the principals; Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier. The only downside, and it’s not serious, is that, as a 1995 recording, it’s a bit short of the latest and greatest in audio and video quality.
Heiner Müller was an inspired choice as director. Arguably Germany’s leading dramatist since Brecht, this was his sole opera production. He takes a severely anti-Romantic approach and goes for a minimalist, Japanese inspired aesthetic which showcases the performers. Each act has a simple set and a distinct colour scheme. In Act 1, the action is all set in and around a rectangular depression in the stage with a palette of reds and yellows. Act 2 is in what looks like a war cemetery of breastplates arranged in geometric patterns and is severely blue. The grey/green third act is set in concrete strewn desolation. Costumes match the sets and props are minimal. There are geometric projections during the preludes which rather reinforce the Japanese feeling. The Personenregie is also anti-romantic. Characters are arranged on the stage almost in the manner of Greek drama and physical interaction between them is severely rationed. Thus, at many highly erotically charged moments there is physical space between the two lovers. No doubt some people will feel it’s rather artificial but I found it powerful and compelling.
Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier, as the two lovers are just about perfect. Both sing with power and beauty right to the end and, no small plus, both look the part. Jerusalem is an entirely convincing physical Tristan and Meier is majestic. Her appearance in the last act is more than a little reminiscent of Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Within the tight constraints of Müller’s Konzept both act very well too. Meier, in particular, managing to emanate an eerie stillness when needed. The supporting cast is very good too. Matthias Hölle is a very impressive König Marke and Uta Priew is a solid and sympathetic Brangãne. Falk Struckmann, as Kurwenal, seems a bit dry in the first act but he improves and he’s very fine in the last act. Daniel Barenboim’s conducting is just phenomenal. Every line seems to have perfect weight and balance. It’s even better than his very good reading of this score at La Scala.
Sound (DTS and stereo) and video are distinctly good though you’ll need good speakers! The video appears rather soft grained but that’, apparently, because everything takes place behind a transparent curtain which is needed for the lighting effects. In any event the look rather suits the production. Video direction is by Horant Hohlfeld. It’s acceptable but gets a bit cutesy in the final scene. The booklet contains a cued synopsis and a short but interesting essay by Mike Ashman. The only bonus material on the disks are some trailers. Subtitle options are German, English, French, Spanish and Chinese.
For my money this is the best Tristan currently available on DVD though Barenboim and Meier’s later La Scala offering may be preferred by those seeking a more naturalistic production. Still, one wishes for an equally good performance with top quality Blu-ray audio and video.