Sunday, March 19, 2006

T & I -- the real thing

Well, obviously my problem with Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (see this entry and this one) has been that I have never seen it with Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers in the starring roles with Karl Böhm conducting. This film from 1973 is remastered, but the result is only marginally better than something from House of Opera. But when you're watching it you know that this is it. They are both so much the ideal of voice and artistry, of all that is needed for these roles that the performance is completely transcendent. I confess I am actually thrilled. I can see why one would search the opera world for a repeat of this experience. I see also why one would fail to find it.

They are performing in the Theatre Antique d'Orange, an ancient amphitheater in Orange, France, with a huge surrounding audience. The sets are meager--white staircases in a tiny circle that fits into the small orchestra area of the amphitheater along with the orchestra. The chorus is always off stage. It doesn't matter at all. This isn't real love; it is the abstract idea of love.

Karl Böhm seems to control the slitheryness of the orchestral accompaniment much better than either Jimmy or Zubin. He provides the perfect context for these great singers, the grounding soup that makes it all work, with everyone completely under control at all times. Perhaps other conductors don't understand their subordinate role in this opera. Or perhaps they become interested in the orchestral writing and want the audience to pay attention to it, a fatal mistake.

Wagner directed during the building of Bayreuth that the orchestra would be under the stage, almost completely covered, in order to dampen the sound coming out to the audience. This same arrangement would bring the singers further forward, nearer to the audience and more easily heard. This means he understood his own intentions to be that the large, thick orchestra would be an underlying groan for the more prominent voices, an effect that is difficult to achieve in an ordinary theater where the conductor's control is crucial. Böhm understands this.

Isolde needs to come out as a complete all-consuming bitch in act I only to turn into a kitten in act II and then into a noble giant in act III. Even my beloved Kirsten Flagstad could not manage the intense fury that Nilsson achieves. Flagstad is still best for flow of the phrase, but she didn't have the edge to her tone or her personality that Nilsson had.

One is supposed to adore Nilsson, the incomparable Wagnerian soprano, the incomparable Isolde, and she is all that, but it is Jan Vickers that most impresses here. This is a Tristan to die for. He has the knife edge of the Heldentenor to its Nth degree, but he also has soul, a tragic beauty of phrasing that is simply not to be missed.

Both Nilsson and Vickers are the giants of voice and personality required to achieve the desired effect of love beyond a merely human scale. If you can even tolerate Wagner, you should hear this.

This is what all the fuss is about.


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