Of all the operas on your shelf, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is generally one worth owning in more than one version. Ionarts recommendations in the past have included Thielemann's live Vienna recording (Deborah Voigt, Thomas Moser), the Barenboim/Berlin Phil (Waltraud Meier, Siegfried Jerusalem), and Karl Böhm's live Bayreuth recording (Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen). Along with Deborah Voigt and Nina Stemme (and maybe Waltraud Meier, who has been attempting the role again), Christine Brewer is probably on most critics' lists of best living Isoldes at the moment, heard live recently in the Bill Viola video Tristan and in David Hockney's production revived at San Francisco Opera. Brewer is the main reason to want to own this live recording of Tristan, captured in December 2002/January 2003 but only released in 2006.
Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, C. Brewer, J. Treleaven, BBC SO, D. Runnicles
(released September 12, 2006)
Warner Classics 2564 62964-2
It has been in my ears lately, in preparation for a possible hearing of the Met's Tristan this week. That ended up not happening (although some people heard it twice in a row!), but everyone has surely been following the musical-chairs casting for this production, as illness and other disasters swept through the cast and caused an absurd number of replacements. The situation was so complicated that the people who correct the billboard in front of the Met, likely tired of making more and more new corrections each night, finally stuck a huge sheet over the whole cast with all of the substitutions listed (Opera Chic has the whole rundown, if you need to have the details). There is a history here: after a considerable delay finding singers capable of the two demanding title roles, the very first production of Tristan in Munich was plagued by cast troubles, too, delaying the premiere several weeks.
Donald Runnicles, who was at the helm for the Met's Peter Grimes this week, has a strong hand in Wagner, too. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is captured in warm, well-defined sound. The pacing is luxurious (fitting comfortably onto 4 CDs), creating that sense of Wagnerian near-stasis, in the opening of the third act, for example. While Brewer's weight is probably an impediment to her singing Isolde at the Met in the present era, vocally she is radiant, rounded, luscious from top to bottom, with a transcendent Liebestod. Jens heard John Treleaven's Tristan in Munich, although not at his best. It's a clear, puissant voice, appropriately youthful in tone and broadly colored, just not always with enough squillo for the loudest orchestral passages. It makes the Act II love duet a little uneven. The rest of the cast is generally strong, especially Peter Rose's King Marke.