There are many brave aspects of this elegantly sparse production, including its hypnotic single set of rippling silk walls and composer Richard Wagner’s romantic yearnings stripped-down to their essence. Director Neil Armfield has pared so much “production” away that it feels like a chamber opera with the focus concentrated on the interior thoughts and emotional sweep of the lovers. I was hypnotized by the work visually and swept away by Wagner’s music and the performances of Iréne Theorin and Ian Storey as the lovers.
Washington National Opera has pulled off a huge success with the opening of Tristan and Isolde, honoring not only the two-hundredth birthday of composer Richard Wagner but marking the first full season of Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. However, it was not without its own big internal drama.
A week before opening, American soprano Deborah Voigt, who was much anticipated in the role and whose close artistic association with Francesca Zambello goes back for decades, had to withdraw, on amicable terms allegedly after a tearful dressing room chat, as she felt she could not perform at the level she expected of herself. Heartbreaking stuff. But, after all, opera is singing “without a net,” and, in the business of opera, every possible contingency must be planned for and, regrettably, executed.
A call was made. Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin stepped in. Yes, Theorin had done the role, and yes, she’d sung with Storey. But how big was the allowable margin of error in the first performance of this critically important season in one of the toughest soprano roles? And it’s Wagner! The composer had called this a drama. Could Theorin and Storey make a contemporary audience raised-in-irony believe in this love story that would suffer through life, death, and, by transfiguration, beyond?
From the first scene, Theorin made the watery transitional world, that Opera Australia had designed for the original production, her own. She strode barefoot across the steeply raked Plexiglas floor, a strong, emotionally wild Irish woman, then collapsed on the platform, only to shake herself out of restless sleep, in warring emotions of grief, adamant proclamations for vengeance, and sexual desire.
Isolde represents spoils of war and, as such, a victim. She has lost one promised lord to death and has been snatched up for delivery over to a new lord and king. She has recently utilized her hereditary gift of magic to heal a seriously wounded hero-solider whom, she discovers, had murdered her husband-to-be. That would be Tristan (Ian Storey. )
Throughout the opera’s horrible dilemma, represented by a crystal box of vials symbolizing a palace of potions for both love and death, the delicious emotions of this singer-actress shifted moment to moment. Theorin breathed and sighed both her conflict and her longing.
Lighting designer Toby Sewell supported all levels of the interior story. His rippling light on the parachute silk conveyed not only the turbulent waters of her passage to England and the sails that filled and carried her there but also the symbolic billowing of Isolde’s every breath and emotion. The set’s highly reflective floor surface, with its under supports, evoked a fragile seafaring skiff. The mostly transparent structure floated above a reflecting pool that created a light play throughout the performance, which added both to the emotional and ethereal quality of the opera.
The Plexiglas floor was anchored by a phalanx of bridge-like cables that represented a sailing vessel’s lines. The audience, always most attune when watching something on stage that approaches danger, all but gasped at moments when the performers flung themselves against those ropes. Theorin used them to show her character as ever out of balance, ever yearning.
At one point, Tristan, driven by guilt and despair, looked as if he would throw himself completely off the translucent platform. All the performers explored well the limits of the inner world that this lean stage design represented.
Throughout the unfolding plot, some of the performers’ best moments came in the liveliness found in the sustained moments of expectation. In these long passages of “Wagnerian time,” the composer places a lot of demands on singer-actors. The dependable mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Brangäne and the formidable James Rutherford in the role of Kurwenal, Isolde’s and Tristan’s sidekicks respectfully, work hard and generally match Storey’s and Theoren’s abilities of percolating thinking, while their singing grew in strength and clarity over the course of this first performance.
Ian Storey is a tenor who has stature and, in the role of Tristan, fills the heroic mold, reminding me of film star Liam Neeson. We can well believe this somewhat stiff soldier is shattered by a spell that transforms him into loving the woman he has fought to win for his king. I found his relationship with the loyal Kurwenal moving, thanks to the playing of both men. Most importantly, I believed both the unbridled passion and the wondrous transformation through suffering of a man and woman in love.
Tristan and Isolde
Closes September 27, 2013
Washington National Opera
at The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
4 hours, 45 minutes with 2 intermissions
Tickets: $25 – $300
Nonetheless, Tristan and Isolde is challenging on so many levels, make no mistake. Its sheer length of three acts running four hours and forty-five minutes is daunting.
Not all parts of the production were welded ably together as was the minimalist set. Those who came hoping for some serious-style operatic action were to be disappointed. Thus, the nod to fight choreography was a little laughable. The final scene was not prepared for adequately and, after the constrained, tightly coiled energy of anticipation, the staging of the final resolution seemed superfluous and even melodramatic.
The opera has some of the most difficult music in the repertoire. First, there is just that the burden of the singing falls so much on the two leads, who must sustain the musical and emotional pitch required for the entirety of the opera. Then the tonalities, including the famous “Tristan chord,” push always into that place of unresolved tension.
Wagner’s dazzling experiments into this “new sound” makes the opera feel fresh, especially in the hands of conductor Philippe Auguin. He led the WNO orchestra with great assurance on this opening performance, and the transparency of the production allowed the orchestra to feature its own strong character. No wonder, the audience broke out in applause for Auguin and his musicians little more than halfway through the performance.
In the final moment, you could not have asked for a more exquisite Isolde aria, “Liebestod,” which won the audience over completely. With only the billowing clouds behind her changing to a golden peach with silvery glow, soprano Theorin sang it with such distinction and elevation of feeling, it was a transcendent experience.
With only four more performances, this really should not be missed.
Tristan and Isolde . Music and Libretto by Richard Wagner . Directed by Neil Armfield . Conducted by Philippe Auguin . Produced by Washington National Opera . Original Production from Opera Australia . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.