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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde

Jon Vickers (tenor) Tristan; Birgit Nilsson (soprano) Isolde; Ruth Hesse (mezzo) Brangaene; Bengt Rundgren (bass) Marke; Walter Berry (baritone) Kurwenal; Stan Unruh (tenor) Melot; Horst Laubenthal (tenor) Shepherd/Young Sailor; Paul Taillefer (baritone) Steersman;
New Philharmonia Chorus
ORTF National Orchestra/Karl Böhm.
Théâtre Antique, Orange, France, 7 July, 1973
PAL. 4:3. Region 0. Live


There is no doubting that this live Tristan exudes a certain magnificence. This despite a catalogue of hurdles to one’s enjoyment – inclement weather (boy, was it windy that day!) and a recording that hides much orchestral detail being paramount amongst those barriers.

It is instructive to compare this version with Böhm’s much more famous Bayreuth/DG performance (1966, DG The Originals 449 772-2). The Prelude to Act 1, for example, does not have the same intensity in Orange as it does on the Green Hill. Yet how fascinating to watch this conductor in action and to marvel at how his minions follow him – downbeats are vague in the extreme. On the production side of things, there is an annoying habit of cutting from the ongoing Prelude to the cast list and back. This is distracting and is still going on 10 minutes in!. A missing beat at around 4’34 similarly annoys. Nevertheless, there are interesting things to note about the qualities of actually seeing the performance in progress – if we did not see the double-basses at one point, would we follow their important three-note figure at that point at all?

Recorded balance is, perhaps understandably, variable. Isolde (Nilsson) in her opening scene is distanced, the orchestra close-up. Yet how wonderful to see how impressive and imposing Nilsson looked as Isolde, proud and defiant. She was not young at the time (55!) yet her vocal powers are almost all there, and her mature conception of the role is certainly all present and correct. Her vocal acting is supreme (compensating at times for weaker lower notes); and how memorable is her floating of the phrase ‘Er sah mich in die Augen’. But most impressive, surely, is her Curse. Surely there can have been fewer more frightening invocations of the dark powers of black magic than this.

Jon Vickers’ Tristan makes an impressive entrance, becoming particularly strong at the end of the first Act. Vickers’ timbre is instantly recognisable. Of course, it is in Act II that heights of passionate lyricism are reached (a fact that Böhm seems intent on pushing right from the word go – the Act opens with an orchestral ‘scream’ and Böhm at his fluent best). The still on the cover of the product is taken from the famous duet (‘O sink’ hernirder’). A pity Vickers’ acting ability tends towards zero – in fact a pity that the duet is lit at all (a Goodall Tristan at ENO in the eighties had the stage lit in such a way that it was impossible to distinguish where the voices came from – a remarkable visual analogy for the wedding of souls that takes place here). The endless motivic repetitions on the scene do indeed give the impression that this night could go on forever in this most spiritually yet also sexually charged prolongation of the highest form of love. Brangaene’s Warning emerges here as the stroke of dramatic genius it really is – her voice really does surface as if it comes from another planet. In fact, throughout the work, Ruth Hesse’s Brangaene is an excellent foil to Nilsson’s Isolde – the scene in Act I where Wagner contrasts Brangaene’s hero-worship of Tristan against Isolde’s answers (a masterclass in musically-composed sarcasm) is particularly impressive.

Bengt Rundgren’s King Marke is very, very strong of voice, but there is just so much vibrato there it is off-putting. His costume and make-up hardly does him any favours, either – just where did they get that stuck-on wig from?. A last minute addition from a joke-shop up the road, surely. Like Vickers, if you don’t look at him there is much to admire – his ‘Dies Tristan, Dies Tristan zu mir’ in Act 2 is really heartfelt, a vocal portrait of disbelief and disappointment; again, in Act 3, he is a powerful vocal presence.

The Act III Prelude is magnificent as an evocation of Tristan’s spiritual desolation (Böhm looking here for all the world like Nosferatu!). Walter Berry’s Kurwenal looks so devastated as he sits beside the prostrate Tristan.

The cor anglais’ solos balance the off-stage Sailor in Act I in that an extended monodic line that carries high semiotic and dramatic meaning. Both solos make their emotional point in this performance. If only Kurwenal’s surprise at Tristan’s awakening weren’t so stagey – yet all memory is effectively erased because of the power of Vickers’ monologues. Indeed, Vickers is at the very apex of his powers in this Act – the crushing disappointment he feels when, instead of an approaching ship all that one hears is the cor anglais’ piping, is visceral. Vickers has just the right ‘Helden-edge’ (that edginess of tone so characteristic of a Heldentenor) so that his voice cuts across and through anything.

Of course it is Isolde who closes proceedings. Comparison between this ‘Verklärung’ and that of 1966 is instructional. Nilsson’s placing of ‘Hoch sich hebt’ is just as awe-inspiring, just as spot-on; yet the repeated fortissimo brass chords so cataclysmic in 1966 are less than that here, the recording not helping by putting them firmly in the background.

Perhaps it is Böhm that emerges as the hero in the final analysis. His pacing of Act I is excellent, so much so that the climactic final moments as Tristan and Isolde ‘discover’ one another are positively rapturous (the ecstatic applause at the end of this act is fully deserved); Act II becomes an unforgettable love-poem; Act III, along with the Wotan-Brünnhilde end of Walküre, becomes one of the greatest of all leave-takings. If only we could hear more of the orchestral detail that was surely there in 1973. But to speak so is almost blasphemous – we should be eternally grateful we have this at all.

English subtitles are available. Mainly reliable, there are some interesting licences, chief among them being the translation of ‘Welt-Atem’ in the Verklärung as ‘Universal Stream’ (as opposed to the more literal, and usual, ‘World’s-breath’) … The staging is spare, yet effective, concentrating the concentration on events on-stage.

The fact remains that whatever the shortcomings of this DVD (strange balances, jerky camera-work etc), this is an experience to treasure. It should be in every Wagnerian’s collection.

Colin Clarke


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