Domingo brings high studio command to `Tristan'

The Spanish tenor handles tough role with sensuality, depth of emotion

Classical Music

September 11, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's widely believed that the long and noble history of star-filled, big-budget, studio-made opera recordings is effectively coming to an end with the release this week of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde from EMI Classics.

If so, the finale couldn't be much more satisfying.

That the indestructible tenor Placido Domingo is singing the famously tough role of Tristan, complete, for the first time - the recording sessions in London wrapped up last January, a few weeks before he turned 64 - makes the release instantly newsworthy. Making it valuable is the fact that his performance ranks among the most compelling he has committed to disc.

Maybe the world doesn't really need another Tristan recording, any more than we need another set of Beethoven symphonies, but this one has much going for it beyond Domingo.

The rest of the cast is of a considerable quality; the orchestra of the Royal Opera House plays splendidly; and conductor Antonio Pappano shapes Wagner's indelible score with admirable sensitivity. (The three-CD package comes with a bonus audio DVD that offers the complete opera in surround sound and on-screen libretto.)

Record companies have found it increasingly difficult to afford, or justify, the expense of projects like this, which can easily cost $1 million or more to produce, with decidedly uncertain prospects of a return on the investment. The whole classical recording industry, for that matter, has been slipping for years now. Companies that once made more than 100 recordings a year might make a few dozen.

When it comes to opera, the trend is away from audio-only products toward DVD, preserving live performances in a theater, a much cheaper proposition. But Domingo is not about to tackle Tristan onstage (as he has Wagnerian heroes Siegmund and Parsifal); this vocally exhausting assignment was possible only by spreading it out in the relatively non-stressful atmosphere of a studio.

Beauty of tone revealed

It was in a studio that Domingo documented his only previous foray into Tristan und Isolde, the Act 2 love duet with soprano Deborah Voigt, released in 2000 (also on EMI). That tantalizing hint of what the tenor could accomplish in the role has now reached welcome fulfillment.

Having been subjected to so much barking and bleating by over-parted singers, Wagner's operas can understandably be mistaken for the ugliest possible contrast to the dulcet 19th-century Italian style known as bel canto. But Wagner was as interested in hearing beauty of tone as Donizetti or Bellini, and nowhere more so than in Tristan, the ultimate feast of operatic sensuality.

Domingo's innately Italianate sound easily provides that quality here, as it has repeatedly in his unparalleled repertoire (122 roles and counting, more than any other tenor). Solid musicianship, with finely observed details of dynamics and rhythm, and a consistent eloquence of expression - the tenor summons exceptional depth of emotion in the last act - add to the strength of the performance. It's a little spooky to find a tenor in his 60s sounding so good.

As Peter Alward, the departing EMI Classics president who spearheaded the Tristan recording, told Gramophone magazine recently, "I think we're going to have a generation of Wagner tenors committing hari-kari when they hear this, because I don't think you've ever heard the role sung with such sheer beauty."

Vocal warmth abounds

An old fantasy of mine was for Domingo to record the opera years ago opposite another great Spanish singer with an affinity for German music, Montserrat Caballe, as Isolde. That just might have been the ultimate bel canto Tristan.

But this one hardly lacks for vocal warmth. Swedish-born Nina Stemme is a wonderfully youthful-sounding Isolde, transformed by a magic potion into a true love-force. She sails through the score fearlessly, incisively in a performance worthy of comparison to the best on record.

Same for Rene Pape's richly sonorous, deeply involving portrayal of Marke. Mihoko Fujimura is a radiant Brangane. In a bit of luxury casting, Ian Bostridge brings his trademark refinement to the small role of the Shepherd. Olaf Bar (Kurnewal), Jared Holt (Melot) and Rolando Villazon (Sailor) may not leave as vivid an impression, but prove more than reliable.

Every new Tristan recording gets judged against some mighty competition, above all EMI's own benchmark release from 1952 conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler and featuring Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde. In many ways, that monumental performance will never be topped, particularly for the spirituality and force-of-nature intensity that Furtwangler generates.

This new addition to the catalog stands up strongly nonetheless on artistic and, very likely, historic grounds.

Even though a few more traditional, major studio opera recordings will no doubt materialize (Domingo is scheduled to make a couple of them, but nothing of Wagnerian proportion), it seems clear that an era is drawing to a close. And doing so in high style.

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