An Iconic Tenor’s Secret Wish: To Tackle Most Demanding Role

In 1875, Clara Schumann, the widow of the composer Robert Schumann and the most celebrated female pianist of the 19th century, attended a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and afterward wrote in her diary: “It is the most repulsive thing I ever saw or heard in my life. To have to sit through a whole evening watching, listening to such love-lunacy till every feeling of decency was outraged, and to see not only the audience but the musicians delighted with it was—I may say—the saddest experience of my whole artistic career.”

The widow’s disgust may have been inspired, in part, by Wagner’s disregard of her late husband’s considerable contribution to German Romantic music. In any case, the response of anyone who submits to the spell of Tristan’s “love-lunacy” is likely to be scarcely less extreme. If Tristan is not, as many connoisseurs would argue, the greatest opera ever written, it’s surely the most potent—as potentially life-altering (at least during its four-hour-plus running time) as the love potion that wreaks such havoc on its title characters.

Wagner’s mature operas, from The Flying Dutchman on, attempt to fuse drama and music so thoroughly that the two are inseparable. In Tristan, as befits an opera with minimal stage action, the drama is the music. As the critic Ernest Newman observed, “The real drama [in Tristan] … is not external but internal, a state of affairs made possible to the musical dramatist only in virtue of the vast superiority of music to speech and to the pictorial arts in range and subtlety and intensity of emotional expression.”

By the time Wagner wrote this, his seventh opera, he had become so adroit at telling a dense tale through the interweaving of his famous melodic leitmotifs and his vast command of orchestral colors that Tristan is one of those rare operas that can be fully experienced when heard but not seen.

Not surprisingly, it’s been favored by superb recordings. At the top of many lists of the greatest opera recording ever made is the 1952 Tristan (for EMI) by the visionary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra and, in the title roles, Ludwig Suthaus and a very mature Kirsten Flagstad (several of her top notes were interpolated by the producer’s wife, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf), this Tristan seems to emerge out of the primordial ooze.

A more recent celebrated performance is Herbert von Karajan’s gleaming 1972 version (also on EMI) with the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the most heroic modern Tristans (Jon Vickers), and the infectiously feminine Isolde of Helga Dernesch. Karl Böhm’s live recording on Deutsche Grammophon of Wieland Wagner’s legendary 1966 production at Bayreuth, with Birgit Nilsson as a take-no-prisoners Isolde and Wolfgang Windgassen’s sensitive Tristan, has super-charged momentum. Daniel Barenboim’s 1995 performance (on Teldec), with the Berlin Philharmonic and the sturdy pairing of Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier, is warm and spacious.

Now comes a new Tristan that is a landmark recording on several counts. For the beleaguered classical CD industry, EMI’s beautifully packaged and engineered box of three disks and extensive liner notes, produced at a reported cost of well over a half-million British pounds, represents what many fear could be the last hurrah in the annals of star-studded studio recordings of complete operas.

For Plácido Domingo—the most fearless tenor of our time—taking on the most demanding of all tenor roles in the twilight of his long career (he’s in his mid-60’s) is an apotheosis. For years, he’s “secretly” wanted to record the opera, he told a reporter in the August issue of Gramophone, “but I was afraid that if I performed it on stage I would shorten my career—that perhaps I didn’t have all the Heldentenor weapons.”

Finally, two years ago, Mr. Domingo told EMI that he felt up to it. Antonio Pappano, the music director of the Royal Opera House, with whom the tenor had made two acclaimed recordings of Wagner scenes, was enlisted as conductor. For Isolde, the nod went to an exciting young Swedish soprano, Nina Stemme. The supporting cast was filled by a young Japanese mezzo-soprano, Mihoko Fujimura, as Isolde’s companion, Brangäne; the peerless German bass René Pape as King Marke; the distinguished German lieder baritone Olaf Bär as Tristan’s trusty lieutenant, Kurwenal; and, in the cameo roles of the Shepherd and the Young Sailor, two of today’s most admired young tenors, the Englishman Ian Bostridge and the Mexico-born Rolando Villazón (who’s sometimes mentioned as Mr. Domingo’s successor).

The result is a glowing Tristan for all concerned. I’ve heard more inexorable Preludes than the luxuriant, rather leisurely one that Mr. Pappano and the Royal Opera Orchestra deliver, but once past Mr. Villazón’s too grandly declamatory Young Sailor’s song, the performance crackles with keen sensitivity to the opera’s oscillation between the outer reality of ego-driven willfulness and the inner one of self-abandonment in illicit love.

Ms. Stemme’s clear, penetrating soprano makes up in dramatic intelligence what it lacks in voluptuousness; her “Liebestod” is shattering. Ms. Fujimura’s gracefully sung Brangäne adds to the aura of vulnerability around the two women. Mr. Bär makes a gruffly tender Kurwenal. And Mr. Pape’s sorrowing, eloquent King Marke, so riveting in the opera house, supplies that essential infusion of moral gravitas that suddenly interrupts the lovers’ rapture.

But this is Mr. Domingo’s triumph. Granted a generous recording period of six weeks, he sounds wonderfully fresh. For all the headstrong authority of his manner, his Tristan is a hero of wounded melancholy. I’ve sometimes found the tireless ring of Mr. Domingo’s voice a bit one-dimensional, but in the hallucinatory monologues of the third act, he reveals a range of dramatic shadings—listen to the breathtaking pianissimo of his “Isolde!” when she finally emerges onshore—that I haven’t heard from him before. If his is not quite the Heldentenor’s instrument that could have sustained him during a continuous staged performance, it’s still streaked with despair—a quality that makes him an ideal Tristan.

“I always ask myself why Wagner was so cruel to Tristan,” Mr. Domingo said to the Gramophone reporter. “There is only one explanation. The desperation of the man is so great that you almost have to feel it vocally …. [Wagner] lays tremendous traps. The modulations, the intervals—they’re not predictable. And some of the soft moments are just as important as the very anguished, dramatic ones. They must be very simple, but very deep.”

With Tristan, Mr. Domingo has gone deeper than ever before.

An Iconic Tenor’s Secret Wish: To Tackle Most Demanding Role