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Thursday, May 31, 2012

DVD Review: Queen Takes Knight

Nina Stemme in the Glyndebourne Tristan und Isolde.
by Paul Pelkonen
First-date jitters: Isolde (Nina Stemme) confronts Tristan (Robert Gambill) at Glyndebourne.
Photo © 2007 Glydebourne Festival/Opus Arte.
In the last decade, soprano Nina Stemme has transited from singing Mozart to heavier German repertory. This three-DVD set, released in 2008 by OpusArte captures Ms. Stemme as Isolde in the Glyndebourne Festival's first-ever staging of a Wagner opera. Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the London Philharmonic in a sweeping, slow reading of the score that draws out much of Wagner's musical detail.

The Irish princess is one of the most complicated roles in opera, traveling from rage to redemption and stopping along the way to fall in love with Tristan, the Cornish knight assigned to bring her to his feudal lord, King Marke. Ms. Stemme sings the two Act I narratives with power and detail, injecting vivid meaning into each word as she tells Brangäne of Tristan's betrayal.

In this Spartan setting by Nikolaus Lehnoff, those details are necessary for the viewer to understand what's going on. Set designer Roland Aeschlimann creates an abstract space, a large torus that looks like the "Guardian of Forever" on the original Star Trek. All the characters move through this torus which is carefully lit to reflect contrasting moods. The only ill effect of this "mystic donut" is that it muffles the chorus and offstage horns.


In Act II, the lighting design (by Mr. Aeschlimann with Robin Carter) shifts from a bright orange (for the flickering torch) to a dim, blue mystic acting space for the two lovers to engage in the most poetic date ever. When King Marke appears, the harsh, grey light of day means that the party's over. Older Wagnerians (or those who've read Frederic Spotts' excellent book Bayreuth may recognize this idea--it was used in Wieland Wagner's universally acclaimed 1967 staging at the Festspielhaus.


As the object of her affection, Robert Gambill is a high-lying heroic tenor who is clearly straining in some of his big moemnts in the first two acts. However, Mr. Gambill saves the best for the torments of Act III, reaching fresh heights of insanity and vocal prowess in Tristan's self-tormenting monologues.. His final outburst at Isolde's arrival is heart-rending, and the decision to commit a second suicide by tearing off his bandages actually makes a kind of grim sense. Isolde appears like Death from The Seventh Seal, and wraps her lover in a black cloak before launching into the Liebestod.

Mr. Lehnoff's costumes belong to the same visual world as his well-travelled post-apocalyptic production of Parsifal. That connection makes sense, as Wagner had orignally considered having Parsifal stop by Tristan's castle at Kareol on way back to the temple of the Grail. The Shepherd (Timothy Robinson) a minor role in Act III, is himself Parsifal-like, dressed like an itenerant fool and carrying a long tree branch--that might or might not be the mystic Spear.
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The supporting cast is excellent. Bo Skovhus is almost unrecognizable under his helmet, but the baritone makes a characterful Kurwenal with deep feeling for his master. Rene Pape projects sadness and sonority as King Marke, a role that the German bass has come to own in the last two decades. Katarina Karnéus' Brangäne has something in common with Kundry in her dramatic portrayal, and delivers a chilling Watch Song in the second act.

The Liebestod is taken at a very slow tempo by Mr. Bělohlávek, which does not make it sound exactly like a reprise of the love music in Act II. Ms. Stemme's soaring high notes are ably supported by an impressive low range, as her voice rides the waves of orchestration to each of Wagner's musical climaxes. The phrases leading up to "In dem wogenden Schwall" are torturously slow. The final release is exquisite. But don't take my word for it: watch!

Nina Stemme sings the Liebestod from Act III of Tristan und Isolde.
Footage © 2008 Opus Arte.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.