Finally, after a year, this revelatory production, the most successful La Scala season opening in years, has arrived on DVD. I saw it live at La Scala last year, and it remains the highlight of my operagoing experience.
Really, I do not have much to add to my previous description of this simply astonishing production, one of the rare instances of opera truly being more than just a sum of the individual parts. With equal emphasis on the simply outstanding achievements of Patrice Chéreau, Daniel Barenboim and Waltraud Meier.
First, Waltraud Meier is an entirely compelling Isolde. Vocal shortcomings or not (I may add she is on fine form here), she simply inhabits the character of Isolde and the myriads of facets of her superb acting are convincingly transferred to this DVD. I remember how the entire house was paralyzed by the intensity of her liebestod, by far the most moving version I have seen her do. Undoubtedly giants of the past such as Astrid Varnay and the likes could do things with their voice, which Waltraud Meier cannot. However, Waltraud Meier can do things with the character on stage, which those of the past could certainly not.
This is the third DVD featuring Waltraud Meier´s Isolde (preceded by the Müller-Barenboim Bayreuth production and Konwitschny´s Munich staging), and by far the best. Even though Heiner Müller´s Bayreuth production had Daniel Barenboim and a superior Tristan in the shape of Siegfried Jerusalem. But they had no Patrice Chéreau to humanize the drama. In fact, he was asked, but declined. Incidentally, he also declined to stage the 1982 Bayreuth Tristan, which then went to Ponnelle..
Admittedly Patrice Chéreau´s staging is dark and sombre - a ship, a seawall, grey concrete walls encapsuling the drama. Distinguished by his superb personal direction of the singers and thorough analysis of the text, he transmits the emotions unlike any other director I am familiar with. Perhaps with one exception - as Patrice Chéreau has explained, he sees the second act love duet as a philosophical power struggle between Tristan and Isolde, and he may well be right. It would just have been so much more compelling to have it acted out in real.
Also Daniel Barenboim´s third Tristan and Isolde on DVD (he started out with the 1982 Bayreuth Ponnelle production), he more than keeps everything together.The poignancy and engaging interpretation places him high above anyone else both on or off DVD, including his own previous Bayreuth productions, perhaps as a result of this Scala DVD being recorded live.
Best of the rest was Matti Salminen´s dignified King Marke. Ian Storey definitely looks and acts the romantic hero. Vocally his timbre does not appeal to me, but he more than gets away with it. Michelle De Young does to a lesser degree, though she gains from the transfer to DVD. Gerd Grochowski portrays an energetic Kurwenal, vocally perhaps on the dry side.
It this the best Tristan and Isolde DVD on the market? Yes. Without doubt and with a large margin to the next (which in my opinion are Barenboim´s two previous Bayreuth productions, Ponnelle´s and Heiner Müller´s).
Act 1: Isolde´s narration and curse:
Act 1: The love potion - one of the highlights of the production:
Waltraud Meier´s liebestod:
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):
Waltraud Meier: 5
Ian Storey: 4
Michelle De Young: 3
Matti Salminen: 5
Gerd Grochowski: 4
Patrice Chéreau´s production: 5
Daniel Barenboim: 5
Overall impression: 5