I’m rarely disappointed by a Pierre Audi production and his Tristan und Isolde for Teatro dell’opera di Roma, recorded in 2016, was far from that. It’s a bit of a slow burn but then so, really, is the work itself. It’s starkly simple. The sets contain few elements and no fuss. Costuming is almost drab but the direction of the singers is compelling and it builds to a brilliant staging of the Liebestod with Isolde silhouetted, motionless in a kind of frame and absolutely nothing happening which, paradoxically, is riveting.
Along the way there’s one thing I’m not sure I really decoded. Melot is an elderly cripple and when he stabs Tristan, partially concealed by Isolde, Kurwenal is nowhere to be seen. Not sure it matters really though. What is striking, generally, about the direction is the development of the characters and their relationships. Everyone seems very human in an opera where often they just come across as archetypes. This is certainly true of Andreas Schager’s Tristan whose madness in the third act is quite compelling. There’s a similar intensity in Rachel Nicholls’ Isolde and what is really interesting is the way they convey their mutual passion without, I think, ever actually touching each other. John Relyea’s Marke is also intensely human; agonised even, and Brett Polegato transforms from a kind of fierce intensity in Act 1 to something much more fragile in Act 3. The only character Audi doesn’t seem to have a clear idea about is Brangäne (Michelle Breedt). She does the usual stuff but, dramatically, doesn’t really make an impact.
Musically this is very satisfying too. Danielle Gatti has a clear sense of the structure of the work and successfully does that thing where as a listener you are never quite at ease. He’s helped by really lovely playing by the Rome orchestra. The singing, too, is very fine. I don’t suppose any of the singers featured here would feature on anyone’s Tristan dream team; past or present, but perhaps they should. All the principals show real dramatic intensity when required and something much more lyrical at times as well. Schager is astonishing in the reserves he has left for Act 3 and Nicholls sounds fresh in the Liebestod. Musically, as well as dramatically, this whole performance just seems to get better as it goes on. No mean feat.
The video director, Annalisa Butto, is new to me. She’s quite daring but not in a gimmicky way. She uses a most unusual shot a few times. It’s the view from high up at the back of the house taking in stage, orchestra and auditorium which gives a sort of feel of the whole house taking part in some sort of ritual. She combines this in the Liebestod with a receding shot that leaves Isolde increasingly alone; a tiny speck in the universe. It’s really beautiful and I don’t think Sven Nykvist could have filmed it better.
Sound (DTS-HD-MA and stereo) and picture are both pretty good on Blu-ray and the picture needs to be. This production is often dark and Butto’s way with the camera demands a really good rendering. This is definitely a recording I would avoid on DVD. The booklet has a track listing, a synopsis that doesn’t really reflect what’s happening on stage and and a pretty ordinary short essay. There are no extras on the disk. Subtitles are German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.
This stands very high among recordings of this work that I’ve seen on every dimension and stands up well to some of the more starry casted offerings. It’s also one of only a handful of recordings available on Blu-ray. Definitely worth a look for Tristan enthusiasts or newcomers alike.