A publicity photograph from one of the Abbey Road sessions for Placido Domingo's long-anticipated recording of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" shows the tenor at his music stand wearing reading glasses and looking a bit grandfatherly. He peers up and away from soprano Nina Stemme. She's at her own stand, several feet from him, staring intently at her score.
Some gaze! Hardly a Tristan and Isolde so absorbed in each other's eyes that the world disappears. Hardly lovers lost in a desire that knows no boundaries and accepts no taboos.
Instead, we peek into what will probably wind up being the last big-name, big-bucks studio opera recording -- the end of an era. No more spending hundreds of thousands of dollars coddling famous singers' egos. No more waiting decades to, with luck, recoup an investment. No more recording works with singers who have never performed their roles onstage and are long past their primes. No more sessions spread out over weeks, months, years. No more relying on technology that permits a soprano and tenor to record a duet without ever setting foot in the studio at the same time.
No more shifty studio magic. But then again, no more of that legerdemain to bring the music alive in ways it may never be in the opera house. This new "Tristan," which EMI Classics will release in the U.S. in September, turns out -- against all odds -- to be glorious.
Made chunk by bleeding chunk in London between Nov. 23, 2004, and Jan. 9, 2005, the set documents Domingo's only attempt at what most tenors feel is the most punishing role in the standard operatic repertory. Stemme, a Swedish soprano who emerged from Domingo's Operalia competition in 1993, has but a bit more experience with the opera. She had sung Isolde only in Stockholm and at Glyndebourne when the recording was made (she has since appeared in a new staging in Bayreuth this summer).
But Stemme is a fiery, ferocious, rapturous Isolde. She has a slightly steely edge to her dusky voice that I'd like to see soften, but her focus on music and character is riveting.
And then there is grandfatherly Domingo. At the end of his career, well into his 60s, he wanted to record Tristan. And what Placido wants, Placido gets. He reportedly helped raise the funds for the project, money he could have been raising for his cash-strapped Los Angeles Opera.
Of course, he could have been doing a lot of other things -- and often was -- such as running his other company, the Washington National Opera, singing a stupid opera (Franco Alfano's "Cyrano de Bergerac" at the Met), conducting here and there, following the "Three Tenors" money. But what he was also clearly doing was studying "Tristan" truly seriously and digging deep within his own psyche. And now he's made what, for me at least, is the most impressive and important recording of a not inconsiderable career.
Domingo, it has been claimed, has undertaken more roles than any other opera singer in history. And some would say he has accomplished this by singing them all the same way. But for this "Tristan," he brings all his incomparable experience to bear. He honors his innate Italianate lyricism. At the same time, he exercises his phenomenal curiosity and searches for the most profound dramatic meaning of his every utterance.
Meanwhile, he takes full advantage of the studio, which allows him to both marshal his forces and take chances. Big chances. The half-hour monologue in Act 3 is an epic voyage of self-discovery, and the normally outgoing Domingo turns inward as never before. His outbursts come from someplace inside that he has kept from his public until now.
All this and beauty too. At no point does Domingo sound anything less than luminous -- or like a man in his 60s.
But he does sound wise and reflective and heroically determined in a way that a younger singer never could. In the love duet, his voice melds, ego-lessly, into Stemme's. In his monologue, he fights his own demons with a Jungian intensity. His yearning melts your heart.
Antonio Pappano, who conducts, is the other hero of this performance. He is alert to every small detail while nevertheless producing tremendous sweep and tension. The music director of England's Royal Opera, he gets the company's orchestra to play with satisfying richness and warmth. Yet he is always there for the singers, supporting them, giving them room to delve ever further.
This is a lavish production all around. No less than the sensational young tenor Rolando Villazon opens the opera with the Sailor's song. The ethereal lied singer Ian Bostridge is an ethereal Shepherd. Olaf Bar makes a vivacious Kurwenal; Rene Pape, an intensely moving King Mark. Mihoko Fujimura, a newcomer, sings Brangane well.
The million-dollar push