What is to be done with ‘Tristan and Isolde’?



Tristan Und Isolde -- The new ArtHaus DVD of Wagner’s "Tristan und Isolde" runs 233 minutes. I counted perhaps 1 minute, more or less, in which something actually happens!

In Act I, the two lovers drink from a bowl. In Act II, Tristan crosses swords (just once) with Melot, a retainer of King Marke. In Act III, Tristan’s shield bearer, Kurwenal, stabs Melot and later is himself killed in a barely choreographed battle.

So any director of this work has as his great challenge not only to keep the production from being a colossal bore but to make it a riveting experience. In this 1993 performance in Tokyo as part of a tour by the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Director Gotz Friedrich seems to hope that the singers will carry the day. A precarious way to present this work.

First of all, the scenery is minimal: a ship’s deck with some ropes for Act I, the "King’s garden" with merely a rocky surface and not a flora in sight for Act II, and another rocky surface for Act III. The lighting -- or lack thereof -- does nothing to please the eye. And what is considered the longest duet in all opera finds the lovers immobile on their knees in deep darkness. Indeed, an extended long shot of the couple shows nothing but darkness with no sight of the singers. (This was intentional, I read.)

The costumes, at least, are vaguely medieval. However, the people in them (Tristan, Isolde and Marke) are directed to stand in place, the lovers showing emotion only in their looks and voices.

Alas, Gwyneth Jones is vocally out of her depth to some degree in a role that would have given her little trouble years ago when she was singing Brunnhilde in the (in)famous Chereau production that was put onto video in 1980. And while one hesitates to say it, it is undeniable that the camera closeups are not kind to the aging soprano.

Rene Kollo (Tristan) appeared in one or two operettas made for German television back in the 1950s, where he proved the most wooden of actors. He was the Tannhauser in my first stereo LP set, and I found his voice far too lightweight for that role. Here his voice (but not his acting) has deepened, and I think he is vocally passable, sometimes very good, as Tristan.

Hanna Schwarz does what she can with the role of Brangane, Isolde’s lady-in-waiting; but several reporters have commented on her voice as not being right for the role. Robert Lloyd (King Marke) and Gerd Feldhoff (Kurwenal) are stolid, but their voices are impressive.

(To be fair, how can a director put life into this work?)

Conductor Jiri Kout brings out the magic in the score, but the sluggish action on stage provides a formidable obstacle. The picture is in 16:9 widescreen and there are subtitles in six languages.

1920 -- It is obviously very well to read books about the old-time songs and those who sang them and quite another actually to hear them being sung. Then twice blessed are the smaller labels that can take chances and issue CDs that are targeted to smaller but appreciative audiences. Such a label is Archeophone with their Phonographic Yearbook series, all of which I have already have reviewed. One of them, "1920: Even Water’s Getting Weaker," is a special favorite of mine.

Here we have 24 tracks of recordings that appeared in 1919 and 1920. You will find such titles as "The Love Nest" (used by Burns & Allen as their theme), "When My Baby Smiles at Me," "Swanee," "Prohibition Blues," "Whispering," and "Rose of Washington Square." And you hear Paul Whiteman and his Ambassador Orchestra, Art Hickman’s Orchestra, Al Jolson, Bert Williams, Edith Day and Eddie Cantor, among others. Space limitations make it impossible for me to list them all -- but they all are wonderful.

The booklet gives you a good background of the times, notes on each selection, and some wonderful photos of exploding beer barrels and the singers that drank from those that got away. Yes, there will be offensive racial references; but we cannot ignore the shameful part of our history without doing an Orwellian 1984-type rewrite on it. Grab this one and the others. You can order from Archeophone by e-mail: sales@archeophone.com, or from their website www.archeophone.com.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays.


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