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'Tristan': Thoughts on Third Performance

Iréne Theorin (Isolde) in Tristan und Isolde, Washington National Opera, 2013 (photo by Scott Suchman)
One of the meta-experiences of listening to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is the perception of opera history shifting under the weight of this powerful score. In terms of its harmony, dramatic construction, orchestration, narrative pacing, and many other parameters, it cast a spell that altered the way opera worked. The stark contrast between this work, composed in the late 1850s and heard in the third performance of Washington National Opera's production on Saturday night, and Verdi's 1847 opera I masnadieri, heard last night from Washington Concert Opera (review forthcoming), was disturbing. What a difference a decade can make.

Not all operas or productions merit covering as many performances as possible, but in the case of Tristan, Ionarts will be present at all five performances: see my thoughts on opening night and those of Robert R. Reilly on the second performance. There is a special energy at a first performance, and the absence of that buzz may have accounted for a less sterling account on the part of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. It was still very good, but with more blemishes than opening night.

My impressions of the cast remained largely unchanged, except perhaps for having the experience of James Rutherford's Kurwenal grow on me quite a bit. This was not so much that he was in that much better voice at the third performance, although that was probably part of it, but that his broad-shouldered bonhomie, so earnest in his devotion to Tristan, made sense. Ian Storey did not really improve vocally as Tristan, but as on opening night, he was very effective in terms of acting and presence in the softer parts of the love scene and the bleak opening to the third act. Iréne Theorin's Isolde continued to dominate every scene she was in, eclipsed only briefly by the King Marke of Wilhelm Schwinghammer, a singer we hope to hear in Washington many more times. Theorin did this not only by her singing, which continued to be powerful, sweet, and sultry, but by her stage manner and movements.

Part of the credit for Theorin's striking moments on stage must go to director Neil Armfield, whose work with Theorin was obviously cut short because she replaced Deborah Voigt late in the process. Theorin was imperious and angry in the first act, but still moved by her memories of the first meeting with Tantris, Tristan in disguise, in the narration scene. She was also girlish and fun, kicking up water in the pool beneath her at one point. Tristan is a static work, which this staging underscores in a beautiful way, with a visual approach that helps the music submerge the viewer in its tidal pull. In the second act, Armfield went more for tender than torrid in the love scene, with a duet ("O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe") that was placid and understated. Perhaps this would have appealed more to Clara Schumann, who was so repulsed by having "to see and hear such crazy lovemaking the whole evening" that she almost left in the middle of Tristan. Then again, Clara had the same reaction to Wagner that many people have: dislike of the person limited her enjoyment of the music. (She wrote in her diary of Wagner that he was "a person who never stops talking about himself, is highly arrogant, and laughs continually in a whining tone.") Philippe Auguin did not take any more time with the prelude to the third act, and it still seems a shame to sacrifice that gloomy moment to the goal of getting the audience out of the theater in under five hours.

Two more performances of this production remain, on Tuesday (September 24) and Friday (September 27), the latter with Alwyn Mellor and Clifton Forbis taking over the title roles.

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