Domingo, Stemme, Fujimura, Bar, Pape, Bostridge, Holt, Rose, Villazon; Antonio Pappano, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. EMI 7243 5 58006-2 (three CD's and one DVD).
With its stellar leads, passionate direction, superb sound, elegant packaging, and extra DVD, this new set of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde goes to the head of the class in my grade book.
Wagner's ultimate love triangle, based on the Arthurian legends of Tristan, Isolde, and King Mark, has never wanted for glorious recordings, the ones by Karajan (EMI), Solti (Decca), and Bohm (DG) springing quickly to mind. But, frankly, the competition tends to pale next to the sound and voices on this 2005 EMI release.
The composer based his opera on the medieval accounts of the traditional story by German poet Gottfried von Strassburg. It recounts the tragic tale of two people who fall in love, the knight Tristan and the Irish Princess Isolde whom he must deliver to her husband-to-be, King Mark of Cornwall. The story has every bit of the romance, spiritual imagery, ardor, and fire one could imagine, and Wagner matched it with the grand, fervent, romantic spiritualism of his music. Domingo, Stemme, Pappano, and the Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra capture the Wagnerian spirit in all its transcendent glory.
My first reaction upon seeing the cast list was that Placido Domingo seemed more than little old to be singing the part of the youthful Tristan. Yet upon hearing the set, I found Domingo's voice belied his sixty-odd years, coming through as strongly and as sweetly as it did twenty and thirty years earlier. My reaction upon seeing the name Nina Stemme was "Who's she?" OK, I'm not an avid opera buff, and I don't keep up with the latest artists in the field. Yet, upon hearing the Swedish soprano, I could understand her being chosen to sing next to Domingo. She not only holds her own, she equals his performance in every way, no small feat. This is singing of the highest caliber in all departments.
Needless to say, the whole enterprise would have gone for naught if the sound weren't up to par, and it is. EMI's engineers have given us a recording of splendid depth and breadth. Voices are natural and fluid, the orchestra well spread out between the speakers, dynamics strong; and the frequency response wide. Although the stage effects are not as pronounced as those on Decca's old opera recordings of the Fifties, EMI's are nonetheless realistic. When a character sings from the topmast of a sailing ship, the voice sounds as though it's coming from the topmast. When singers are fretting about on stage, their voices move across the sound field. This is no mere concert recital.
If I had to fault the audio in any way, however, it would be in the sound of the chorus, where the massed voices can on a few occasions seem overly bright, even fierce. I'm not sure if it was EMI's intent deliberately to brighten the chorus for added clarity or drama, or whether it was the accidental result of the miking, but in any case it's only a minor distraction in an otherwise flawless production.
What's more, in addition to EMI presenting the opera on three CD's, they include a fourth disc in the set, a music-only DVD of the entire opera as well, recorded in DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, with a printed libretto that one can read on a TV screen, and subtitles in English, French, or German. To listen to the DVD, I left my main system, VMPS RM40s, and retired to my home theater, Boston Acoustics speakers, and a distinct diminishing of sonic quality; but it was interesting to note the increased musical ambiance afforded by the rear-channels. It didn't convince me it was an improvement, but it is different, and it's like icing on an already delicious cake.