waltraudYesterday we pondered two videos of Tristan und Isolde from the 20th century. Now let us move on to a performance that is definitively of the 21st. Patrice Chéreau, the humanist in provocateur’s clothing, returned to Wagner in 2007 at La Scala with Daniel Barenboim and Waltraud Meier. The three had first collaborated, memorably, on Berg’s Wozzeck more than a decade earlier. 

In all of Chéreau’s work in opera, but more than ever in the work completed in the last decade of his life (Così fan tutte, From the House of the Dead, Tristan, Elektra), there is an urgent humanity about familiar characters. These are not myths or archetypes, not superpeople. They are plausible and volatile human beings bearing up under extreme circumstances. When it works, as I believe it usually did, you may ask: is anything grander than that?

In this production, the dream is in the middle of the opera: two people at last alone. The outer acts are set in squalid realism. There are more people laboring away on the ship in the first act than we typically see, busy with their own concerns, stories concealed from us, paying no mind to Isolde and Brangäne. Again in the third act, we see more people around Tristan than are absolutely necessary. The director’s usual designer, Richard Peduzzi, does characteristic work with utilitarian settings that loom over the characters, creating a stark environment against which principals stand out.

Waltraud Meier’s Isolde here, her third and last on video, is one of the greatest filmed performances I have seen in an opera. The voice is what it is, a lifted mezzo that had dared Isolde for 14 years and was inevitably showing some wear. It is in good shape for the date, but you can hear bigger voices, easier voices, more beautiful voices in this music. On a sound-only recording, there would still be much to praise in the musical technique, the way she makes the strengths and weaknesses alike work for her (a slightly sour or tangy quality to the lower middle is useful to color sarcasm), the impressive textual specificity, the obvious care for and perceptive handling of language and music.

But it is the total performance that is worth considering in this visual document: the voice, the face, the eyes, the disciplined and meaningful use of the body, the ravaged glamour and charisma of a great screen actress. The first word that comes to mind to sum up what she provides is “command.” And the second, even more important, is “love.”

This intelligent, opinionated artist was in something that brought together three men it would not be hyperbole to call the artistic loves of her life: her favorite director, the conductor with whom she was most closely associated, and the composer she has said she wishes she had another lifetime to explore. She gives the impression of going after an ultimate statement on Isolde as she understands Isolde, with enough voice left to do it and in conditions that made it attainable. She achieved that, and the cameras were there.

Meier’s lioness-in-winter turn at the center gives the rest of the cast a challenge to meet. Only Salminen, back as Marke, was in 2007 a Wagnerian of comparable stature, and his voice is drier and more restricted in dynamics and color than it had been 24 years earlier. This is an angrier Marke than the one for Ponnelle. He stalks about like a wounded bear and shoves Melot around, but we sense sorrow and loss along with the seething.

Durham-born Ian Storey‘s voice, good-sized but pale and starchy, may not be anyone’s dream instrument for Tristan, and he can be seen glancing at the conductor a few times. He holds his own and has some rough-hewn magnetism. Michelle DeYoung, younger than the Isolde, convincingly embodies Chéreau’s interesting idea of Brangäne as surrogate mother figure, with thinning hair and a stoop. Gerd Grochowski supplies rude, blotchy life as Kurwenal. In general the supporting characters are better considered than they usually are, including Melot (Will Hartmann, pursuing the whiny option).

Barenboim’s conducting this time is more evocative, with a languorous mystery to the prelude, as if the curtain is being pulled back on long-ago, secret things. Much of the performance suggests, in the way scenes are built and shaped, remembrances coming into sharper focus. The Scala orchestra’s sound is rich and mellow.

Of (Waltraud) Meier’s two prior filmed Isoldes, the 1998 Munich is the more interesting and the more strongly cast. She was in firmer voice than in 2007, and had been able to explore the role more fully than in 1995. Director Peter Konwitschny does much that may impress as strange and perverse, but he can never be easily dismissed in German repertoire. It is obviously the work of a real director with insights into what he is staging.

Things linger in the memory: the childhood slideshow accompanying Tristan’s sickbed reverie. Isolde’s moment of hesitation near the end as she closes the red curtain on the mourning Marke and Brangäne, understanding their grief but removed from it, no longer of their world, like a spectral visitor to her own funeral. Kurt Moll‘s frail, kindly, yet very dignified Marke.

Meier’s first Isolde, in Heiner Müller‘s 1993 Bayreuth production as taped two summers later, might seem more valuable if her Munich and Milan ones did not exist. Müller, for all his accomplishments as a creative artist, was not a director on the level of the four aforementioned, nor as conversant with the medium of opera. He was pursuing a tone of restraint and alienation, but lacked the means to enliven scenes, which tend to sag. Coming to this after any of the performances previously discussed, one may find it undercooked, plain. There is honest and often moving work from the veteran Siegfried Jerusalem as Tristan, but everything else that is worth having can be had better elsewhere.