Listening Live / Opera on Record: Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ at Glyndebourne

I finally got round to watching the 2009 Royal Opera House production of La Traviata that I recorded many moons ago on Sky Arts (now available on DVD through Opus Arte). I thoroughly enjoyed it, so much so that I completely forgot about the weekend chores that I should have been doing that afternoon. I thought Renee Fleming’s characterisation of Violetta was particularly striking, Fleming providing Violetta with an almost stoic quality and strength in Acts I and II, choosing to wait until Act III to show Violetta’s emotional depth and vulnerability in the powerful aria ‘Addio del Passato’.

The access to and interest in opera and other forms of classical music that has been generated by television programmes, radio shows, DVDs, and cinema (with some cinemas now screening live performances of operas from some of the world’s most famous opera houses) I think is one of greatest advancements in the arts. That said, I can’t help but feel there is always something lacking in a recorded or televised performance – something appears to go missing in translation from stage to screen.

For most of my twenties, Wagner was not one of my favourite composers. Having listened to numerous recordings and watched a number of Wagner operas on DVD, my attention always seemed to wane after the first act, for which I blamed Wagner rather than myself. However, my opinion of Wagner was to alter when I saw a live performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Glyndebourne Festival, 2009. Indeed, not once during the 4 hours or so did my attention wane; I was completely gripped and I am now a convert. [The below video is taken from Glyndebourne’s 2009 production with Nina Stemme as Isolde].

The striking reversal of opinion I had of Wagner I attribute to the fact that until 2009 I had only experienced Wagner through recordings, having never previously had the opportunity to see a live Wagner opera. Wagner, though, is best heard live. And while a recording or DVD can offer much, in my opinion they cannot capture the magic of the live performance. In the case of Wagner in particular, I think it is the complex orchestration and the individuality he ascribes to each instrument that gets lost. But I also feel that there is the wider issue, and this is perhaps true of all operas, that a recording does not quite capture the vocal power and force of the opera singer. At Glyndebourne I had the pleasure – and a pleasure it was – of hearing Anja Kampe sing the role of Isolde. From where I was sitting – which admittedly was very close to the front – I found myself not just listening to Tristan und Isolde, but experiencing it as well; I could feel both the power of Kampe’s voice and the tremendous force of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The sheer power and control the two I can only describe as overwhelming. In recordings of Tristan und Isolde, it is this aspect to Wagner’s music – the complexity of the orchestration and the interaction between voice and orchestra – that I feel gets lost.

It is probably of no surprise, then, to find that I am a keen advocate of keeping music live and would actively encourage anyone unsure about classical music or opera to form an opinion based on a live performance, rather than on a recording or television show. Indeed, almost the entire classical repertoire was intended to be performed live, and live performances are fundamentally of a very different nature to recorded performances. A live performance is a multi-sensory experience: you listen, you watch, you feel. So, while I am grateful that recordings have widened our access to music and believe that they can be thoroughly enjoyable things to listen to and watch on a Saturday afternoon, I don’t think they can replace the power and magic of live performance.


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