WASHINGTON, September 15, 2013 –The Washington National Opera opened its ambitious new 2013-2014 season with Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” in an unusual Sunday matinee “opening night” performance at the Kennedy Center Opera House. This is an intriguing, ethereal production that, after a tentative first act, drove toward a magnificent and extraordinarily moving finale.
From its famous, enigmatic opening chords to its passionate finale, Wagner’s “Tristan” has long been viewed by most as a complex hymn to the power of redemptive love. Based upon Celtic legend, “Tristan” weaves the star-crossed tale of the bold Irish princess, Isolde, and the heroic warrior Tristan. Through the malign maneuverings of fate, these two sworn enemies fall passionately in love after drinking a magic potion, even as Tristan is bringing Isolde to Cornwall as a reluctant bride for his elderly uncle, King Marke.
Mortified at his sudden and uncharacteristic betrayal of his uncle and friend, the king, Tristan allows himself to be mortally wounded by one of his enemies. He expires in the arms of Isolde in his own castle, even as the King arrives to forgive them both. The opera concludes with Isolde’s “Liebestod,” or “Love-Death,” one of the most majestic—and taxing—solos in all of opera.
Imported from Opera Australia, WNO’s airy, unusual production is distinguished by its almost literal embodiment of this opera’s sometimes-overlooked spiritual and philosophical dimensions. Its three acts take place largely on the surface of a ghostly, transparent ship’s hull, suspended at by angled rigging, resembling a modern bridge structure in appearance. This structure in turn is surrounded by fluid, gossamer fabric representing earthly ship’s sails fluttering in an otherworldly realm.
Taking as a whole, this softly modernist set is an extra-dimensional canvas upon which lighting designer Toby Sewell paints a luminous kaleidoscope of pulsating emotions.
While the opera’s characters are clad in more-or-less period authentic costumes in this production, their ancient yet timeless presence also casts them as prototypes of Everyman. They are, in some ways, serving as bit players in this production, woven into an endless and perhaps unknowable tapestry of existence, searching for the meaning of life and love during this brief, mortal stop on their journey.
It’s all an interesting concept that knits the entire concept together under the straightforward direction of Neil Armfield.
Even better, save for some uncertain entrances in this opera’s famously chromatic overture, the WNO Orchestra under the expert baton of company music director Philippe Auguin, played at its symphonic best with surging crescendi alternating with moments of great delicacy, adding precisely the right amount of organic aural shading as the composer surely intended.
The orchestra at times overwhelmed the singing in the first act. But, as is often the case on opening night, things were subtly recalibrated during the first intermission, leading to more fully-realized second and third acts.
As Tristan, British tenor Ian Storey strode on stage a bit tentatively in Act I. And yet, the character of Tristan in this opera is himself somewhat perplexed by the behavior of Isolde at the outset, so perhaps this approach was apropos. Mr. Story has the volume and heft to bring his Tristan alive, though he took his time to emerge in this production, only hitting his stride during his memorable and convincing solo turn in the final act.
As the almost last-minute sub for this production’s original Isolde, Met star Deborah Voigt, Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin was an excellent, and perhaps a most fortunate choice to replace her. Ms. Voigt, rather bravely we think, apparently chose to withdraw from this production out of concern that her performance might not be up to expected standards.
Such a withdrawal of a big name can leave a company stranded, but not this time. As WNO fans may recall, Ms. Théorin has appeared here in recent years as Brünnhilde in both WNO’s “Siegfried” and in the company’s genuinely impressive concert performances of “Götterdämmerung.”
For the most part, Brünnhilde requires a massive instrument that can prevail even the largest of Wagner’s orchestral forces, and Ms. Théorin has already proved quite capable of that in these two operas.
The role of Isolde, however, while it does require substantial power as well, also visits subtler lyrical precincts. Happily, Ms. Théorin proved fully capable in this vocal realm as well. While again a little tentative in the first act—understandable given the brief amount of time available to come up to speed—she, like Mr. Storey, picked up confidence and conviction in the second and third acts, leading to her remarkably moving delivery of the famously difficult “Liebestod” that concludes the finale.
While “Tristan” is largely a two-character opera, the supporting singer-players are also key to a production’s success. Impressive in the role of Isolde’s lady’s maid and confidante, Brangäne, local audience favorite, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop was strong and convincing, particularly in the later acts. Likewise, bass-baritone James Rutherford’s Kurwenal, again at his best in the finale where, not coincidentally, he gets the most to do.
Baritone Wilhelm Schwinghammer gave the audience a very different look at the strange, sympathetic character of the Cornish King Marke. After having honored Tristan for his past heroic exploits to the point of making him King-in-waiting for all intents and purposes, the aging Marke is caught in the kind of horrific leadership trap we’ve come accustomed to seeing in today’s Washington: his top knight has betrayed him both politically and personally.
More than others we’ve seen who’ve sung this difficult role, Mr. Schwinghammer grasps, both vocally and as a thespian, the agony of the king, but is able to portray it without seeming fatally weak to his subjects.
Baritone Javier Arrey’s villainous Melot was well articulated, too, as were all the minor roles. The male chorus acquitted itself nicely whenever called upon, but was more often felt, rather than directly heard, almost like a bracing but distant wind.
As for the production in general, the only thing we’d find some fault with is the on-again off-again chemistry between Ms. Théorin’s Isolde and Mr. Storey’s Tristan, although we’d attribute some of this to the simple fact of Ms. Théorin’s late arrival to the cast. That said, the tentative grappling during the Act II love scene, set center stage as it was, proved far from convincing. Hopefully, this will improve in the remaining performances.
Nevertheless, WNO’s “Tristan and Isolde” is a dramatic, challenging way to open this or any new opera season. Under new artistic director Francesca Zambello, we can already feel the winds of change as this company begins to embrace its post- Placido Domingo era and its new relationship with the Kennedy Center. Ms. Zambello clearly intends to take things in a different direction, something likely to become even more evident as this season unfolds.
All of which, somehow, makes the title of the company’s next production, Verdi’s “The Force of Destiny” (“La forza del destino”), seem downright prophetic.
Rating: *** (Three stars out of four)
WNO’s production of “Tristan and Isolde” has four performances remaining: September 18 (tonight), 21, 24 and 27, all at 6 p.m. (Note early starting time. “Tristan’s” running time is approximately 4 hours and 45 minutes including two 25-minute intermissions.) Starting this season, pre-opera lectures will be held one hour before the opening curtain, with attendance free for ticket holders. Tickets from $25 and up. Call the Box Office at 202-295-2400.
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