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Tuesday, November 19, 2019


Maestro Gianandrea Noseda, National Symphony Orchestra, and cast of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
(photo © Kevin Yatarola, courtesy of Lincoln Center)

Guest review by Ellen Godfrey:

On Sunday afternoon, at David Geffen Hall, the White Light Festival, now in its 10th year, presented a concert performance of the complete second act of Wolfgang Wagner’s great music drama Tristan und Isolde. English subtitles were supplied. The theatre was totally sold out for this very special occasion. The title roles were sung by the dramatic Wagnerian soprano Christine Goerke and the Wagnerian tenor Stephen Gould.

Earlier in the afternoon, before the opera began, a very engaging lecture was given by Cori Ellison, a well-known opera lecturer and dramaturg involved in many opera projects.  She gave a wonderful in-depth lecture about Richard Wagner and his opera Tristan und Isolde.

Richard Wagner is one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived.  He revolutionized opera and brought it into the 20th century.  After working on his epic Ring Cycle for four.years  (the first ever “Mini-series”), he took a break after completing the second act of Siegfried, the third opera of the cycle. He wanted  to move away from the romantic period of opera to try some new ideas. As usual, he was short of money. Otto Wesendonck, a silk merchant and patron offered Wagner and his wife a small house to live in on his property.  

During his long break, Wagner began studying the 13th century German legend, Tristan, and became very excited about using it for his next opera. In 1856, he began by first writing the music for the opera and then later the libretto, which he wrote, as he did for all his operas. During this period, Wagner set five poems written by Otto’s wife Mathilde to music.  

He used two of them as sketches for the opera Tristan: "Im Treibhaus" (in the greenhouse) appears in the beginning of the third act and "Traüme" (dreams),is heard during the second act love duet.  The five songs became known as the Wesendonck Lieder and are still sung in concerts today.  Wagner and Mathilde were infatuated with each other, but it was never confirmed whether or not they were lovers.

Wagner was very interested in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. The philosopher was very pessimistic about the human condition.  He felt that Death is a liberator.

In the first act of the opera, Tristan is on a ship to Cornwall bringing Isolde to marry King Marke. Isolde has cured Tristan from his wounds from a fight and Isolde secretly has fallen in love with him. She is furious that he is bringing her to Cornwall to marry another man, King Marke. She summons him to come to her and asks Brangane, her companion, to prepare a death potion for them. Brangane  realizes that they are both in love and prepares a love potion instead.  They both fall instantly in love as the ship reaches shore.

The second act of the opera begins with the famous “Tristan chord” and we are suddenly in a whole new world….a world of dissonance and unease.   Maestro Gianandrea Noseda conducted this chord and the subsequent music with great beauty of sound.  Each of the solo instruments and the off-stage French horns stood out for their clarity.  Maestro was able to bring out all the drama of the music when needed and easily toned down the orchestra for the more intimate moments. There were times when he took a more Italianate approach to the music but he excelled in the Wagnerian style as well. 

Christine Goerke has recently added the role of Isolde to her repertoire after having performed several Ring Cycles.  She conveyed the excitement and expectation of waiting for Tristan.  She has a wonderful lower register which was perfect for this scene.  She started off a little carefully but quickly warmed up to her big beautiful Wagnerian voice.  

The mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, as Brangane, tries to warn Isolde that Melot (Neil Cooper), Tristan’s supposed friend, has been double dealing, but Isolde is too much in love to heed the warning. Ms. Gubanova has a big exciting dark voice.  In this scene she has to sing out many long beautiful lines and she handled them very well.  Her singing showed great empathy for Isolde.  When she went to the top of her register, her voice had perhaps an excess of vibrato but otherwise she was very comfortable in the role.

The Wagnerian tenor Stephen Gould is the leading Wagnerian tenor of today.  He has a big resonant voice that easily soars over the orchestra.  He sings the role of Tristan with great passion and has a big heldentenor sound.  When he sees Isolde, his singing becomes very passionate and they are both nearly breathless with the excitement of seeing each other.

As daylight disappears and night takes over, the music becomes quietly rapturous as Christine Goerke and Stephen Gould begin singing the love duet.  Their voices blended wonderfully for this long and difficult duet, effortlessly sung.  Their singing is interrupted by Brangane, who warns them of danger, but they are too much in love to care. They welcome the dark of night which banishes everyday reality from day; night is also the realm of death.

Tristan’s companion Kurwenal runs in warning that King Marke is arriving from the hunt. The King is angry and feels betrayed  and dishonored by Tristan who was suppose to be bringing Isolde to him to be his bride. King Marke was sung by Gunther Groissbock who has a velvety smooth dark bass-baritone voice.  His sadness at losing Isolde was well portrayed.  Kerwenal, sung by another bass-baritone Hunter Enoch, also had a compelling voice.

For me, the most beautiful scene in the opera, which is a turning point for the lovers, occurs at the end of the act, when Tristan asks Isolde gently if she will follow him to a land where the sun never shines.  The music for this scene is so simple and moving.  Isolde responds directly that she will follow him to his land.  Both Stephen Gould and Christine Goerke sang this scene calmly with great beauty, as the music called for.  The act ends with a fight between Melot and Tristan. Tristan is seriously wounded.

At the end of this 80 minute act, the whole audience rose to their feet to cheer the wonderful singers, conductor, and orchestra members.  The performers were called back three times for more applause. We were all grateful for this wondrous performance. It made us all long to hear the entire opera in the near future.

© meche kroop


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