WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde / Juyeon Song, sop (Isolde); Roy Cornelius Smith, ten (Tristan); Tamara Gallo, mezzo (Brangäne); John Paul Huckle, bass (King Marke); Brian Davis, bar (Kurwenal); Alexander Kaimbacher, ten (Melot/Young sailor/Shepherd); Siarhei Zubkevich, ten (Steersman); Ostrava Opera Men’s Chorus; Janáček Philharmonic Orch.; Robert Reimer, cond / Navona NV6321
This is an exceedingly rare release for Navona Records, the boutique label which also includes Ravello and Parma Records: a complete opera, and not a one- or two-CD cheapie but one of the longest and most famous works in the standard repertoire. It’s daring for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Tristan und Isolde has a very long history on records—after the 1930 Columbia Tannhäuser, it was the first (near) complete Wagner opera to appear on disc—and thus is facing at least five and perhaps six legendary competitors: the 1935 Covent Garden live performance (somewhat abridged) with Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Sabina Kalter and Fritz Reiner; the 1950 Bayreuth live performance with Helena Braun, Gunther Treptow, Margerete Klöse, Paul Schöffler and Hans Knappertsbusch, the 1952 studio recording with Flagstad, Ludwig Suthaus, Blanche Thebom, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Wilhelm Furtwängler, the 1968 live performance with Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen and Karl Böhm, the even more famous (but in defective sound) 1974 live performance with Nilsson, Jon Vickers, Walter Berry and Böhm, and last but certainly not least, the 1990 live performance and studio recording (two separate entities, but both excellent and with an almost identical cast) featuring Waltraud Meier, Siegfried Jerusalem, Marjana Lipovšek, Falk Struckmann and Daniel Barenboim. This is some pretty heavy-duty competition to throw your hat in the ring against.
The conducting is clearly first-rate, tending towards the brisk and exciting side (á la Reiner, Knappertsbusch, Böhm and Barenboim) rather than towards the warmer, more amorphous sound achieved by Furtwängler, but since I like this approach I have no qualms. Our Steersman, Siarhei Zubkevich, has a firm voice and no problems, but our intrepid Isolde, Juyeon Song, has a very bright, almost metallic top range and, in the early part of Act I, a somewhat uneven flutter, but both come under control by Track 5. Tamara Gallo as Brangäne has an uncontrolled wobble early on. But I will say this about Gallo, she gives one of the most interesting and dramatic interpretations of her role I’ve ever heard and she, too, gets the voice under
much better control by Track 6. Song is also an interesting interpreter, better in fact that either Flagstad or Nilsson, great as their voices were. Happily, our Tristan, Roy Cornelius Smith, has an absolutely lovely voice—albeit also with a bit of loose vibrato—as well as a superb legato, but although he sings his part clearly and with a little bit of oomph, he doesn’t quite match the interpretive excellence of the two women. Our Kurwenal, Brian Davis, is a real “find,” a singer with not only a dramatic approach to his role but a big, dark, firm and ringing baritone voice. I think he is destined for great things if he can hang onto his voice and not blow it out. One should also not overlook the superb singing of tenor Alexander Kaimbacher as Melot, the young sailor and the Shepherd. This is an absolutely lovely, ear-ravishing voice and another first-rate interpretive talent.
The big problem here is the sound. Apparently, the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music in Lusławice, Poland, which was the site of both the live concert performances and this studio recording, has a very open, almost cavernous sound. Although the voices and orchestra can be clearly heard, the voices in particular are not merely swimming in echo but kicking up tidal waves of it. It almost sounds as if the opera were recorded in an empty Grand Central Station, and this did annoy me. But by the time we reach Track 7 in the first act, everyone is in pretty good to excellent voice and the performance is swinging along with tremendous drive and enthusiasm from all concerned.
By the time I hit Act II, two thoughts crossed my mind: one strange and one not-so-strange. The odd thought was that Juyeon Song’s voice sounds like Roberta Peters on steroids. If Peters were a dramatic soprano and not a soubrette-coloratura, this is what she would have sounded like. The not-so-strange thought was that, for once, our Tristan and Isolde both sound young, as they are supposed to be—in their late 20s at the oldest—rather than like very good but mature singers trying vainly to sound young. For all that I love the Nilsson-Vickers performance, neither one sounds like a spring chicken. Song and Smith do.
The one fly in the ointment here is John Paul Huckle as King Marke. He has a wobble you could drive a Mack truck through, and if he is just in the warm-up stage he doesn’t stick around long enough to do so. Yet he, too, interprets the words in a meaningful manner. It should be pointed out, however, that this is his first ever Wagner role, and he may have been overparted.
In Act III, Smith interprets Tristan’s suffering and death vividly, but alas, here his voice shows a few signs of fatigue, moreso in the soft passages where an uneven “beat” came into play. In louder passages, his voice remained solid, bright, and well-focused. And when Isolde finally enters, Song achieves something that NO other Isolde I’ve ever heard does. She sounds frantic, a little unhinged, on the verge of a nervous breakdown—wholly appropriate to this scene, but as I said, no other Isolde sounds like this. Brava, Juyeon! Well done!
Huckle doesn’t sound any better as Marke when he returns in the last act, but Song actually interprets the words of the “Liebestod,” once again something I’ve rarely heard in the past. Yes, I’m sure that some veteran Wagnerians won’t like her tone—it’s very bright, almost a bit edgy, not warm and burnished like Flagstad or Braun or as big as a factory whistle at five o’clock like Nilsson—but if you can adjust to it, she’s a wonderful singer. Let’s just hope the voice holds up a few years and doesn’t fall apart in four or five as Nina Stemme’s voice did. Ditto Smith, who clearly has the goods. If he can hold onto his voice, he will surely become the successor to Siegfried Jerusalem as the best lyric Wagnerian of his time.
Update, November 19: Since Ms. Song reached out to me on Facebook to explain the many stresses that surrounded this recording, I felt it was only fair to include her comments here. They explain a lot:
“We had an excruciating rehearsal schedule and traveling schedule for this performance…No other Tristan und Isolde casts could have gone through this much of an excruciating rehearsal schedule as we did due to limited orchestra’s availability. We rehearsed every day, plus after the rehearsal, we drove 3 hours to get to Poland from the Czech Republic, immediately went into the recording session. After 2 hours of break, on that same day, we sang in the performance. Knowing this, Orchestra never played Wagner’s music in Public [before], with many of the cast debuting; this performance was a remarkable accomplishment for all involved.”
Considering this, I am of course willing to forgive some of the vocal flaws mentioned above. A voice is not a mechanical instrument; it is subject to stress that can impair its production, and in an opera as demanding as this one, I can certainly understand what happened here. But of course, as a listener unaware of these stresses beforehand, all I could do was to describe as accurately as I could what I heard.
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Yes, this performance has flaws. Being a live performance, both the soprano and mezzo take time to warm up; Huckle’s vocal control is unquestionably fourth-rate; and both the tenor and soprano have a few “iffy” moments in the last act. But as a live performance of a major repertoire work that is unquestionably difficult to sing, it is surprisingly good, and in terms of dramatic interpretation is, overall, the best I’ve ever heard, thus I recommend it highly. There is more “frisson” in this Tristan than in most of the others I own, legendary performances though they may be.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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