A Document In The Career Of The Late Birgit Nilsson
Filmed live at the Theater Antique D'Orange, France in the summer of 1974, this Tristan And Isolde is of particular significance to fans of its lead tenor/soprano pair - Jon Vickers and the late Birgit Nilsson, who by this time in their career had garnered fame and fans. Just look at how vast that audience is, seemingly thousands of people are in that amphitheater, and all of them there to watch this amazing pair! This opera performance is of particular importance because Birgit Nilsson died on December 25th, 2005 and this is one of her very few filmed performances. The other one is her 1980 Elektra. All fans of La Nilsson will want this one because Isolde was one of her greatest roles. Vickers and Nilsson give it their all, singing with expressive vocal technique, dramatic and beautiful tones,Wagnerian musicality and Jon Vickers is even trying to be somewhat macho and sexy in the "bad boy" sort of way. Mezzo-soprano Ruth Hesse is perhaps the most satisfying Brangane ever performed, and this fact is a sad one as she was not famous in the States or in the world opera scene and was probably a lesser-known European/German singer herself,maybe even an understudy for some other great mezzo soprano who might have been indisposed to sing the role that night. Could it have been Regina Resnik who sang Brangane opposite Nilsson many times before,even on the Solti studio recording from 1963 ? Ruth Hesse uses a dramatic voice, and is beautiful to hear, making her role more active and passionate than other Branganes who try to be lesser lights to Isolde. This performance makes Brangane look especially important to the story. After all, it is she who opted to switch the death potions to love potions which still resulted in the death of Tristan and Isolde.
As for Jon Vickers, his Tristan has long been hailed as the finest interpretation. Vocal-wise, it's a revelation. Where as Wagnerian tenors before him were bombastic and unsubtle (take Laurence Melchior and Wolfgang Windgassen for example) Vickers manages to sing with a degree of subtlety and nuance. This is a vigorous, very masculine Tristan, but one with a romantic, softer, vulnerable core. His first encounter with Isolde is particularly dramatic and thrilling, the Love Duet is heavenly and his Final scenes, in which he has been wounded and sings of death and reunion with Isolde, is especially powerful. Some, however, may see him as melodramatic. He does appear to be going mad before he dies in Isolde's arms. This can seem inappropriate or downright silly. Its a "death scene" but not a Mad Scene. This is, of course, debatable. But, still, he may have been in better voice in the 60's and around the time of this performance, he has not lost power but he has lost the effective way of singing a "death scene". That is about the only complaint I have of his. As for Birgit Nilsson, she is in her element here. Isolde was her debut role at the Met, at least 12 years earlier. She may have lost the ability to sing with some lyric beauty but she is still a powerful singer, her high register is electrifying, and she maintains excess within control. That final Liebestod is probably the best she ever sang in her career (unless I'm wrong I was never around to hear her sing all of her Isoldes). She is singing with more pianissimi and lyricism than she usually does, toning down the "Valkyrie" power of her voice to sound hauntingly beautiful and "transfigured". I rather like that particular touch because in the closing Liebestod scene, Nilsson appears divinely beautiful and, beneath the glare of stadium lights, sings the aria as if it were some kind of national anthem.The result: it is us, the audience, who are transfigured by hearing her sing. Perhaps the only downside is too much control that she looks too cool and passive, lacking dramatic passion. Compare her to Vickers and you'll note how Vickers sings Tristan far more passionately and Nilsson's Isolde is very tame and lackluster from a dramatic point of view. Therefore such scenes as the finale in which Isolde reunites with the dying Tristan is a disappointment. But even like this, hers is the definitive Isolde too many Wagnerian opera lovers. She identifies with the role because her heritage is Nordic/Aryan, and that was what Wagner's music was all about- the honor and romance of ancient European lore. Her Germanic singing is unbeatable, her technique is supercharged, exciting and she sings a role that is quite frankly the most difficult soprano role in opera so casually that one wonders if she could sing the whole opera in the shower!! All true devotees of La Birgit will want to get this DVD.
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