The first Tristan and Isolde: Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, June 1865. Photograph by Josef Albert.
Tristan und Isolde was the first opera I bought on CD, before I had heard or seen any opera outside of excerpts on TV commercials. That was almost 30 years ago, and outside of a performance in New York City that I wouldn’t have been able to afford, this year is the first time I had the opportunity to see it live. Due to the difficulty of singing the two main roles (especially the tenor part), this isn’t an opera that can be performed year after year, like Mozart’s operas (which have their own difficulties, but vocal fatigue isn’t one of them). In fact, Seattle Opera – formed in 1963 – didn’t premiere it until 1981, and this is an opera that was first performed in 1865!
To say that I was excited to see it is an understatement, especially when I saw that Stefan Vinke was playing Tristan, who I’d seen almost 10 years ago in Seattle Opera’s (so far) final production of The Ring (here are my reactions to him in Gotterdammerung and Siegfried). Would he be as astounding as he was nine years ago?
Act I begins with that glorious overture, and it did sound glorious, even if the crescendo near the end didn’t erupt as powerfully as on either the Solti version (my first opera CD) or the Furtwangler. Still, the strings sounded as lush as they should, and I heard instruments (especially the woodwinds) and details (like the “breeze” that compliments Isolde’s narrative mentioning the same) that I didn’t know were there. Because of the half-covered orchestra pit, the bass end sounded muffled in climaxes, but the extra details and interpretive insights more than compensated. Based on this performance, I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from conductor Jordan de Souza, who made his Seattle mainstage debut (!) with this production. In fact, several behind-the-scenes people were making their mainstage debuts with this production, including stage director Marcelo Lombardero, set & video designer Diego Siliano, lighting designer Horacio Efron, costume designer Luciana Gutman, and video animator Matías Otálora.
When Mary Elizabeth Williams appeared as Isolde, her notes sounded a bit hollow, especially on the high notes. Amber Wagner as Brangäne, however, was steady out-of-the-gate (and making her mainstage debut). Once she started showcasing her soft singing, however, Williams’s voice blossomed, as did her interpretation. Her voice was in the vein of a Margaret Price: more lyrical than dramatic, but without sacrificing power.
The voice of Vinke also wasn’t quite there in the first scene. The notes were, but they sounded as if they were uttered by a generic tenor, rather than the superhuman voice I’d heard in The Ring. The voice I remember returned in his second scene with Isolde, however, and if Williams’s strength was in her soft singing, Vinke’s was in his power. In fact, his voice tended to stay around forte (only rarely dropping to mezzo-forte when piano was called for), and easily carried over the orchestra.
The sailor (Andrew Stenson) was great (and is a great shepherd in Act III), the choruses (led by Michaella Calzaretta) were excellent, and Kurwenal (Ryan McKinney) appropriately mocking. Plus, Jonathan Dean’s English captions made me marvel at Wagner’s words almost as much as his music.
I must also mention the scenery. Using medieval-looking translucent tapestries in the foreground with digital projection and rear projection behind a fairly bare set with three levels, transformed by lighting, projected images, and small changes in the furniture, this is how the future of opera should look. There was also a small platform in the center that could be raised, used to great effect in Act I. After Tristan and Isolde drink the potion, the stage darkens until there’s just light on the two lovers, the platform rises, and a small square of rear-projected clouds moving through a blue sky silhouettes them from behind, as the effects of the love potion take hold as interpreted by the orchestra. I also love how they’re initially facing away from each other as we get closer to that powerful tutti chord. I think even Wagner would approve, as he would the dramatic thrust of the chaotic end of Act I.
As proof that the orchestra is made up of mere mortals, they sounded a bit TOO chaotic in the buildup during Act II’s overture. Yet though they got lost in the middle, they quickly got back in sync. Even Vinke proved his mortal credentials on a long note during the Love Duet that wanted to be two separate notes. He later disproved these credentials in Act III, but we aren’t there yet.
My only other caveat with the orchestra was that the buildup to Tristan and Isolde’s meeting wasn’t done at a more intense clip. In fact, there were parts in all three acts where I wished De Souza went with the emotion of the moment and conducted those sections more quickly, damn the tempo markings. But sadly, we are far removed from the romantic era’s interpretive ways with music.
I did notice that the the beginning of the duet went at a faster clip than Furtwangler while still allowing Williams and Vinke to put out gorgeous long notes that blended beautifully together. In fact, it probably was played a little faster to help with the legato singing. During the duet, the raised platform was used again to lift them to the sky. All around the back of the stage were projected those moving clouds, before being projected on the front tapestries while stars and galaxies appeared behind the two lovers.
Brangäne’s warning was almost taken too slow for Wagner (the singer, not the composer), but it allowed her to show off some stunning breath control and legato singing. Both Wagner and Williams were singing lights out here (including two high Cs for Isolde), while Vinke’s power was impressive, even if he could do anything with his voice but sing softly.
Melot isn’t a flashy role, but Viktor Antipenko (in his mainstage debut) did fine with the role. King Marke’s monologue can be incredibly boring or incredibly inspired, depending on who is singing it. Morris Robinson has a beautiful, deep voice, but didn’t dig deep enough into the character to make me pity him as much as the dialogue said I should.
Also, in the only questionable bit of stage direction, Tristan pulls Melot’s sword into him instead of merely lowering his guard, making Melot blameless in slaying his best friend.
If the Love Duet was taken a little bit faster than Furtwangler, the mournful cor anglais solo at the start of Act III was the only part in the opera I felt was drawn out too long, as it took away from the forward momentum of the music. Still, the overture to Act III was a highlight, as the curtains rose on the rear projection of waves crashing against a rocky shore, and a chair set up for Tristan on the middle platform that looked like a rock slab.
Here Vinke got to play to his strength (singing loudly), though he did employ softer dynamics when Tristan sings about his parents. He also chose to bite off the ends of some notes in a shout, which might’ve been an interpretive choice, a way to show off his intefatigable lungs, or to prevent him from flubbing some notes. I’m assuming a combo of one and two, since he hit all the other notes without so much as a crack, including all the high Cs. Again, just when you think he might be mortal after all, he goes all superhuman on you.
The only person to get weary in Act III was McKinney with one small section sung raggedly, but otherwise he was solid. Robinson’s appearance near the end of the act was as steady and noble as in his monologue in Act II, but still without that deeper characterization that the best King Markes convey. Besides Tristan, however, the act belongs to Isolde’s Liebestod, since it’s in this final aria that the tension that has been building for the entire opera is finally released.
Because the miracle of Tristan und Isolde is that the entire opera is built off a dissonant chord (the famous Tristan chord) that doesn’t get resolved to a dominant chord until the end of the opera. We almost get that resolution in Act II. Tristan and Isolde’s Love Duet builds to it, before the chord is shattered into dissonance by the arrival of day. At the end of Act III, Isolde sings her Liebestod to the same melody (but slower) as that love duet, but now with Tristan dead in her lap, she sings it to him, instead of with him. Here is where the two lovers finally reach the perfect love they were looking for in life, but only found in death. And here is where that musical dissonance that borders on atonality resolves itself.
As I’ve stated at the beginning of this piece, Tristan und Isolde was the first opera I bought. I’ve heard Nilsson sing it with Solti and Flagstad with Furtwangler. The loveliest Liebestod I heard might’ve been Margaret Price with Carlos Kleiber, but none of those singers, among the best on record, touched the emotional impact Williams’s Liebestod had on me. With her pure tone and interpretive gifts, she left me an emotional wreck. I’m used to movies turning me into a sobbing mess, but operas rarely do, and they’ve never devastated me to the extent this one aria did.
The scenery helped immensely, as the other singers became shadows and the light limited itself to the two lovers. And then, as the aria built toward the closing pages, waves were projected behind Williams and Vinke over the length of the stage. Meanwhile, I’m no longer in control of my body as we reach that chord that I know is coming – that miraculous chord that releases over four hours of tension, hanging there as the instruments caress it like the waves being projected in the background. I mentioned Williams, but the orchestra is exemplary here, too. There’s a denouement of sound to let us down softly after the impact of that release, leading us gently to the end of the first modern opera, and one of the most moving experiences of my life.
Tristan & Isolde was performed at McCaw Hall on October 15, 21, 23 (matinee), 26, and 29th. Heidi Melton (making her mainstage debut) sang Isolde for the matinee; otherwise, the cast was the same for all five performances.