|Carlos Kleiber, when he felt like conducting.|
This Tristan is another brilliant, maverick take on a difficult opera, from a conductor who only made a few studio recordings. Under Kleiber's baton, the nuances and textures of Wagner's complex score unveil themselves to the listener in fresh, fascinating ways. The Staatskapelle is superbly managed and tautly controlled. There are outbursts of raw power--Isolde's entrance in Act III, the "Kornwall, heil!" chorus--but the whole is never lacking in lyrical flow. Kleiber makes this tricky score breathe--he allows the music to be as natural and romantic as Verdi while still having Wagnerian power and thrust.
As fitting an opera about men versus women, we'll go through the singers by gender. Rene Kollo is Tristan here, on the downward slope of his long career. Kollo recorded every Wagner tenor role in the studio (except Siegmund and Siegfried) and the mileage shows on his voice. But this is a brilliant, carefully thought out performance, just on the edge of hysteria in the third act.
Kurwenal is in the person of Dieter Fischer-Dieskau. One of the greatest lieder artists of the 20th century, Fischer-Dieskau always sounds a little bemused in Wagner, as if the proceedings swirling through the orchestra are a bit too vulgar and he'd rather get back to his nice Schubert. Kurt Moll sounds grand and grandfatherly as Marke, but misses the emotional heart of the character.
The controversy of this set is the casting of Margaret Price--a soprano known mostly for her work in Mozart and Puccini--as Isolde. True, she is occasionally overpowered by the orchestra, most notably at the start of Act II and at one moment in the Liebestod. There are moments in this score where a laser-like voice is needed to slice through the Wagnerian texture. But that weakness makes her more vulnerable than some Isoldes. After all, Tristan is falling in love with a princess., not boarding a battleship. Brangaene is sung by Brigitte Fassbaender, an intelligent mezzo who, like Fischer-Dieskau, brings a lied sensibility to the role.