Will the last one out please turn off the lights?

Placido Domingo is singing Tristan, at last. But it may be the heroic last stand of studio-recorded opera, fears Michael White
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The Independent Culture

There's always something surreal about watching opera being recorded in a studio. Lined up in military formation behind rows of microphones, the singers live their roles entirely in the voice: they attack top notes, spit venom, charge every utterance with fierce emotion, but they do it standing still, with folded arms or hands in pockets.

There's always something surreal about watching opera being recorded in a studio. Lined up in military formation behind rows of microphones, the singers live their roles entirely in the voice: they attack top notes, spit venom, charge every utterance with fierce emotion, but they do it standing still, with folded arms or hands in pockets.

It's the nature of a process that confines reality to one dimension: sound. And for the past few weeks it's been happening on a daily basis in the cavernous, gymnasium-like space of EMI's Studio One at Abbey Road where, had you got past the security, you'd have seen an exceptional line-up of singers with their hands in their pockets gathered alongside an army of orchestral players, sound technicians, gofers, agents, interested luminaries and attendant hangers-on for what will probably be a landmark in the modern history of recording.

Not that the Abbey Road studio has been short of landmarks in its 70 years. It was here, for example, that the 16-year old Yehudi Menuhin recorded Elgar's Violin Concerto under the composer's baton, and the Beatles made their soundtracks to the Sixties. But this latest venture has a claim of its own. It is a million-pound recording of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, put together partly as a now-or-never enterprise for Placido Domingo (who turns 64 this month), but equally as a last, heroic stand from a classical CD industry so crushed by economic inequality that many in the business think it's entering terminal decline.

To sit in Studio One while Antonio Pappano beams encouragement to his own Royal Opera House Orchestra and cues in Domingo (singing Tristan), Nina Stemme (Isolde), or the ne plus ultra of luxury casting, Rolando Villazon and Ian Bostridge in the cameo roles of Steersman and Shepherd, is to bask in a sense of all being right with the world. But, in truth, it probably represents the end of the line for studio-recorded opera, which has become a rare undertaking and looks like being obliterated by the newer, flashier and (above all) cheaper medium of DVD - filmed as it happens in a live, on-stage performance.

"The public listens with its eyes today," says Peter Alward, who has just retired as president of EMI Classics after 34 years with the company and who planned this Tristan as, among other things, a farewell to himself. One of the giants of the classical recording world, Alward has watched the business boom and (very nearly) bust, scaling down from a time when EMI made four or five studios operas a year to now, when there are hardly any - other than exceptional, star-driven enterprises such as this Tristan, and the odd project involving repertory so obscure you'd never find a staging to record.

"Don't expect any more studio Carmens or Toscas," says Alward. "It's straightforward economics. An average opera might cost £250,000-300,000 in the studio and this one, being large-scale Wagner and involving extra sessions, is nearly double that. An average DVD deal these days can be got for £100,000. That somewhat dictates our course of action.

"The down side of DVD for us is that we're a minority stake-holder and have to cede a lot of artistic control to whichever opera company we're working with. But I don't believe there's any compromise on sound quality. DVD may not be as pristine as studio recording, but with digital technology and new microphone techniques it's pretty good. And you always take from two or three performances, to edit out the bangs and thumps."

As a result, EMI has no specific plans for any studio-recorded operas after Tristan, although there is an ongoing series of Strauss and Wagner DVDs booked with the Zurich Opera. Nor is this retrenchment limited to opera: in the boom years of the Eighties, EMI was issuing 110 classical titles a year; last year it was 40. Falling sales would be an obvious reason, although Alward says it's not that simple.

"It's more that the market has become short-term. When I started out, a recording had a shelf-life of five to eight years, which allowed time to recoup costs. But now, unless a CD gets its moment in the sun in the first year, it's hard to get sales levels up."

Meanwhile, production costs have spiralled. This Tristan has involved 14 full sessions with the orchestra, and, as Alward says, "the orchestra is always the single most expensive ingredient. Whatever you read in the press, the stars' fees are not the issue. Far from going up, they're going down; and they've come down appreciably since the Eighties, when, company by company, we were played off mercilessly by artists' agents." In the Eighties, to a large extent, musicians played concerts to get themselves careers on disc, which was where the money lay. Now, it's the opposite. And, according to Alward, "the stars are realistic enough to know that. I can assure you that although Placido gets a fee commensurate with his status, it's not outlandish."

Does this mean that there's a bright side to the scaling-down of the recording industry? "There are benefits. During the Eighties we went mad, making far too many records - many of them, frankly, not so good. And we made ludicrous commitments to artists for five, eight, 10 CDs a year, to the point where musicians were going into the studio and saying: 'OK, what is it today?' Painful as it was to reduce the output, we can now focus on every single project and allocate our resources more sensibly. There will have to be a damned good reason to do the next Beethoven symphony cycle, however fiercely the next great conductor believes the world is waiting for it."

From the artist's point of view, the outlook is the same. Tristan is Domingo's 120th operatic role and something like his 80th full opera recording: "I've lost count," he says, "although I know that in the old days there were two to four every summer and it's no longer like that. Which makes me sad. There are advantages to DVD: it gives a chance to a broader variety of singers, not just the same few star names over and over. But unless the circumstances are exceptional it won't give you the best performances. Or the best casts."

Nor, he could add, will it give you Domingo's Tristan - because he has never sung the role on stage, and never will. Although he has been singing Wagner since 1968 (a Hamburg Lohengrin) and has appeared as Parsifal and Siegfried, he considers Tristan's four pretty much relentless hours of Helden singing too much for his kind of lyric tenor.

"He was cruel, Mr Wagner, in the length of his writing. In Tristan, by the time you finish the love duet you could be having a baby, God help you. So I've always turned it down. I've had offers from Bayreuth and Vienna, and I was tempted because I do love this role. But all the time I think: vocally, this will shorten my career; and how long do I have now? Three years? Four? Who knows? So I stay with the studio, where I can take it bit by bit."

It's all part of the surreality of off-stage recording. Scenes are taken out of order, so the dead spring back to life, the wounded are miraculously healed. At one point, as the soloists weep over Tristan's corpse, the corpse himself is chatting to a sound-recordist in a glass-boxed room, sucking the throat sweets that the studio supplies in quantity. Between takes, everyone sweeps into the control room to pore over the music. A singer rushes to a piano with a member of the coaching staff to sort out the notation of an entry that went wrong. The orchestra open their newspapers, and wait.

When, if ever, Domingo will be working on a full-scale opera back at Abbey Road remains an issue. He has plenty of plans for the remainingyears of his career, but they are nearly all on stage. His only studio certainties are to complete an Albeniz rarity already half-recorded, and to plug the one significant hole in his Puccini discography, Edgar. He admits this isn't much. "But it's how things are. All I can say is that I hope the circle will turn one day and the studio recordings will come back. I just don't see it happening yet."

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