In last weeks Rosenkavalier it took a fully staged production, in which everything fell into place, to won me over for this opera. I didn't need to be convinced about Tristan und Isolde. Several recordings (Furtwängler, Böhm and Kleiber to name but a few) already did the job before I went to see the concert performance with Jaap van Zweden and the Nederlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. With conductor and orchestra, already responsible for unbelievable beautiful renditions of Lohengrin and Parsifal in this venue, succes was almost garanteed.
Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde as an opera that could be performed with a minimum of theatrical means. Stuck in the second act of Siegfried, with the end of his Nibelungen-cycle nowhere in sight, it was made in order to make some money. It seems fit therefore to perform it in a concert hall without stage props. And Wagner's music is illusive enough. With a concert performance you don't run a risk that a staging build on poor choices collides with your own imagination when you walk through the cathedral of sound Wagner erected for the ill-fated love between Tristan and Isolde. What is missed in staging and acting has to come from orchestra and singers alone.
You known when you are in a good live performance when you stop comparing it to the discography that is in your head. The discography of Isolde I carry with me harbours the voices of Flagstad, Nilsson, Price and Stemme. And in their company the Isolde from Jennifer Wilson is not the most seductive one I know. Her voice his big enough, perhaps with some hard edges in the higher register, but by the time she arrives at her moment of transformation, Die Liebestod, she shines in all her glory. She manages to silence the voices of the past that are on my mind.
In the week before this performance two singers fell ill. King Marke was originally meant to be sung by Matthias Goerne. A singer who worked with Van Zweden in this hall before and delivered a beautiful Schubert on that occasion. He was replaced by Falk Struckman. A powerful King Marke, strong and not too subtle. The loudest voice of the set. And Clifton Forbis, who was suposed to sing Tristan, even fell ill one day before the concert. Ian Storey came to the rescue and saved this event from being canceled. He did not had one rehearsal with the orchestra. Thus adding a new dimension to the term Heldentenor. But he is not the biggest voice and his Tristan was perhaps a little to small-voiced for this Isolde. In his third act monologue it seemed like he was short of stamina, not out-of-character for someone who is mortally wounded, but I found his performance a very satisfying one nonetheless. He did not overreach, perhaps would have be in somewhat better shape if he would have had time to prepare for this occasion, and sang a sensitive Tristan. I own a DVD with him, Waltraud Meier and Daniel Barenboim in La Scala, directed by Patrice Cheréau. It's the best Tristan on video I known. A production in which characters of real flesh and blood take a stroll through the garden of love and lust. With perfect Personenregie from Cheréau.
In the Concertgebouw the orchestra is on stage with the singers in front of it. It's the opposite from the configuration in Bayreuth. It's a matter of taste, more than of historical correctness - only Parsifal was composed with the acoustics of the Festspielhaus in mind, but I think the balance between strings and brass benefits from it. The sound is more open comparing to Bayreuth where the brass, being in the back of the pit, can sound compressed. You can hear all instruments in the tutti, with special thanks to mr. Van Zweden who doesn't drive the fast lane. Like in his Lohengrin and Parsifal, Van Zweden is a careful ascender of zeniths, with a keen eye on the development of the drama that culminates in Isolde's Liebestod. Nothing can compare to a Liebestod that comes as a conclusion after four hours of Tristan and Isolde. It's beautiful as stand-alone aria but as climax on top of the complete opera it is simply without competition of anything I know in the world of opera.
Afterwards I feel like a junk. Out of the drug that was provided to me for the last few hours. Once it is over I want more. There is a sense of loss. Being cut off from the musical life support system that took my mind on a trip through the Wagnerian matrix. Outside the concert hall the world is dark and it starts to rain. And I look at it with just the most appropiate soundtrack imagineable in my head. I feel enriched, even spoiled, that all this is just on a ten minute bicylce ride from home. Tomorrow I'll swallow the blue pill but until then I walk with my head in chromatic clouds, the world of Tristan and Isolde.