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Tristan und Isolde
Houston Grand Opera
Stemme and Heppner, Isolde and Tristan at HGO
© Felix Sanchez 2013
The Houston Grand Opera presentation of Tristan and Isolde (seen Apr. 18) — a Christof Loy production previously seen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden — struck gold with its singers, several of whom were appearing on the HGO stage for the first time. Soprano Nina Stemme, in her HGO debut as Isolde, had a commanding stage presence, luminous voice and impassioned delivery that captured the full range of Isolde's experience. Stemme's lower range, in particular, is a marvel of depth and power that projected every syllable over Wagner's rich orchestral accompaniment. Ben Heppner, also making an HGO debut, was Tristan: his large frame, brooding stage persona and smoldering, soulful tenor voice created a tragic hero both conspicuously masculine and poignantly vulnerable. One of his best moments, when Tristan drinks the potion, captured his expressive range: he is brusque and steely just before, and then, just after, liquefied in overwhelming desire. It was, however, a mixed night for Heppner: his voice gave out for a portion of Act II but then returned to full strength in Act III.
The Brangäne, Claudia Mahnke (another HGO debut artist), has a shimmering mezzo-soprano that soared out from the background in her watch song in Act II as confidante and accomplice to the lovers. Ryan McKinny's dusky, vibrant bass-baritone captured each of the diverse phases of Kurwenal's trajectory as Tristan's comrade-in-arms, from swaggering to conflicted and finally to grieving. Christof Fischesser, the King Marke, was also making his HGO debut. There were many colors to his beautifully resonant bass that elicited both the magisterial authority and affecting sorrow of the king's Act II confrontation with Tristan. Even the smaller roles — the perfidious Melot (tenor and HGO Studio Artist Kevin Ray) and the melancholic Shepherd (tenor Jon Kolbet) — were admirably filled in this remarkable cast of singers.
Set and costume designer Johannes Leiacker's conception of the opera presents an unspecified modern setting, in which men wear tuxedos — except for Tristan, who wears plainer black attire. The staging centers on a foreground/ background division. The singing takes place in the foreground, on a raked stage that is bare except for a table and one or two utilitarian chairs placed against a stage-right wall. The background — a seeming banquet hall set slightly below the level of the foreground, sometimes hidden behind a curtain, sometimes open to the audience, and sometimes glimpsed through a narrow opening — shows us the context for the foreground action: the ship, presumably an ocean-liner, that bears Isolde to Cornwall (Act I); the main hall of King Marke's palace (Act II); and radiant Isolde seated before a candelabrum, as emblazoned on Tristan's memory in the first half of Act III.
Supernumeraries remain in the background. Director Loy has them move in slow motion unless they are singing in chorus, as if to evoke a circumstance that we are aware of but do not actually see.
Although it is generally engaging, Leiacker and Loy's Tristan production is marred by a few details that are puzzling or distracting. Why does Isolde undress Brangäne at the beginning of Act II? Why is Tristan still alive during Isolde's "Liebestod"? Why is Isolde seated and alive after the end of that monologue? The foreground is so dismally bare that it evokes nothing in particular. A spare staging can work well for Tristan and Isolde, but one that fails to inspire our imagination doesn't do the work justice.
The full epic tragedy of Wagner's masterpiece, however, was realized in the playing of the HGO Orchestra, led by Patrick Summers, who savored the long, long crescendos of the Prelude and deftly managed Wagner's dialogue of signifying motifs between orchestra and singers. Desire dominates this story, of course, but there is also pain, regret and melancholy — affects that were borne out in exemplary orchestral solos, especially on the bass clarinet (Molly Mayfield) and English horn (Robert Atherholt).
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