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'Tristan und Isolde' at Washington National Opera

Tristan und Isolde, Washington National Opera, 2013 (photo by Scott Suchman)

The Washington National Opera's season-opening production, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, was everything I thought it would be. As I wrote in my season preview, what put this staging on my list of the most important performances of the season was the chance to hear WNO music director Philippe Auguin conduct this most transcendent of Wagner's scores, last heard from the company in 1999. In its advertising, the company led with soprano Deborah Voigt as Isolde, and posters bearing her image are still seen around town even after Voigt found herself forced to cancel. Auguin, who led an incendiary concert performance of Götterdämmerung in 2009, brought the same confidence to Tristan, a sense of authority that was again translated into the security and ease of all of his orchestral players. The score, with a few exceptions in some of the generally fine offstage brass, has rarely sounded this good.

The repetitive and meditative libretto and the stately pacing of Wagner's music are suited to the mythological nature of the story, told by Marie de France (Lai du Chèvrefeuille), Normand Béroul (Roman de Tristan), and others. Wagner's version, based on the later Middle High German adaptation of the story by Gottfried von Straßburg, would work well in a Robert Wilson production, something which Neil Armfield's staging, brought from Opera Australia, gets at. It features a single abstract set -- the main stage area a glass and steel platform, resembling a ship's hull and suspended on steel cables over a shallow pool of water -- with gentle changes of color (pink creeps in at dawn in Act II, for example) and water-refracted light shone on billowing curtains (lighting by Rory Dempster). The score can be paced much more slowly than Auguin did, but only at a few crucial times -- especially at my favorite moment, the prelude to the third act -- did Auguin's reading feel rushed. He seemed to aim for and achieved an overall timing of about 3h45, but really, is that really worth shorting some of these passages, just to avoid reaching the four-hour limit?

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, In ‘Tristan und Isolde,’ outstanding music drowns out any uneven voices on opening day (Washington Post, September 16)

---, Washington Opera’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’: Striking a chord of longing (Washington Post, September 13)

---, Soprano Voigt drops out of Washington Opera’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ with ‘relief’ (Washington Post, September 9)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera opens season with potent 'Tristan' (Baltimore Sun, September 17)

Philip Kennicott, Tristan und Isolde at the WNO (, September 15)

Other Performances:

September 18 (RRR) | September 21 | September 24 | September 27

Previous Productions:

Peter Konwitschny (Munich, 2007)
Peter Konwitschny (Munich, 2008)
Bill Viola (Dortmund, 2010)
Daniel Slater (Oslo, 2012)
Christoph Marthaler (Bayreuth, 2012)
Peter Konwitschny (Munich, 2013)
Soprano Iréne Theorin is not the best Isolde in the world today, but she was an excellent one, with a soft, radiant tone applied to many of the role's soft passages, yet with blazing power, not always pretty but full, when she needed it. She was a pleasing Isolde physically, in a flowing white robe and reddish-blonde wig, and she dominated most of the scenes she was in. Her Tristan, Ian Storey, was not quite in her league, with some sounds of vocal strain, occasionally questionable German, and a less commanding stage presence. Supporting roles were generally fine, especially the puissant Brangäne of Elizabeth Bishop and regal King Marke of Wilhelm Schwinghammer, the latter in his company debut. James Rutherford did not always have the most pleasing tone as Kurwenal, which let him be shown up by the Melot of Javier Arrey and Young Sailor and Shepherd of Yuri Gorodetski, a former and current member of the WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.

As in most of the music dramas of Wagner, though, it all comes down to the orchestra, which is the principal narrator of all of the action. In Wagner's system of Leitmotifs, found and analyzed to death in Tristan as in other works, the orchestra creates the psychological backdrop of the story, the love and desire theme, for example, telling us that Tristan and Isolde pine for one another long before either is quite willing to admit it -- and before the love potion seals the deal. All sections in the pit sounded at their best, with fine balances giving both loud and soft dynamics maximum efficacy. Particular praise goes to Phil Snedecor, who played the shepherd's pipe solos in the third act on an actual Holztrompete. A trumpet made of wood, something like an Alpenhorn, it was designed by Wagner for those iconic solos, usually played now on English horn (and even indicated as such in most scores of the opera).

This production will be repeated for just four more performances, through September 27, presented by Washington National Opera in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Alwyn Mellor and Clifton Forbis will take over the title roles at the final performance on September 27. More reports on subsequent performances will follow.

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