We felt quite a bit of envy last night at the Santa Fe Opera's production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde; we were envious of the bulk of the audience who seemed enthralled and greeted the artists with thunderous applause at the curtain call which took place a hefty 4 3/4 hours after the disturbing opening chord. Sadly, we were not enthralled.
It was not the length that we objected to; we have sat through Wagner's Ring Cycle a number of times and the hours flew by. It may have had something to do with the medieval legend upon which Wagner based his libretto. The influence of Schopenhauer's pessimism made the love story unlovely. We cannot deem the idea of uniting in some fantasied afterlife as a desirable goal for lovers.
As a matter of fact, the situation between the two titular characters had nothing to do with love but rather with obsession. Who was Wagner to write about love! The philandering narcissistic composer disrespected his own wife! The true loves in this opera are that of the forgiving King Marke for his adopted heir, and that of Kurvenal for his friend Tristan.
Since you, dear reader, have probably already read about the prodigious gifts of soprano Tamara Wilson who used her huge instrument effectively and acted convincingly as the captured Irish princess, we would like to begin by noting the performances that captured our flagging attention.
When bass Eric Owens walked onstage in Act II, our tedium dissolved. In contrast with the wooden performance of heldentenor Simon O'Neill, Mr. Owens has stage presence to spare and a commanding voice, offering a sympathetic portrayal of a childless widower who has been pressured into remarrying the resentful Irish princess. The poor guy got a raw deal, getting betrayed by his designated heir Tristan with his designated bride Isolde. This bring us to our contrarian opinion that this is not so much a love story as a story of the consequences of betrayal. Not only is King Marke betrayed by Tristan but Tristan is betrayed by his jealous friend Melot, well sung by apprentice Eric Taylor who made such a fine showing on Sunday as Siegfried. We are always happy to hear young voices tackling Wagner!
It helped significantly that Mr. Owens was costumed (by Carlos J. Soto) in regal red, quite a standout against the grey and white geometric set, designed by architects Charlap Hyman and Herrero. One could call the architectonic set interesting in its flexible uses but we found it sterile and more suitable to Schopenhauer's philosophy than to a mythic love story. Costuming for Mr. O'Neill was less successful; the armor made him appear to have no neck. The women, however were graced by long flowing gowns.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton made a convincing Brangäne and made good use of her rich middle and lower register. The performance we most enjoyed, however, was that of Nicholas Bownlee in the role of Kurvenal. He showed a deep commitment to the role and wanted for nothing in terms of dramatic effectiveness. His voice was the most successful at cutting through Wagner's dense orchestration and showed an interesting timbre. One might, however, wish for a bit more variety in volume. (His recent recital for Performance Santa Fe's Festival of Song revealed just how deep his artistry runs.)
Speaking of Wagner's orchestration, we are quite aware of the novelty of his harmonic structure and the way he avoided any kind of harmonic resolution until the very end, creating a sense of unease throughout the entire work. What we liked best were the quotations from his Wesendonck Lieder. The rising four note scale passage from "Im Treibhaus" reveals how a simple four note rising scale passage can produce substantial emotional involvement.
The conducting of Maestro James Gaffigan was excellent and went a long way toward illuminating Wagner's dense orchestration. We were particularly taken with the lengthy searching solos for English horn and bass clarinet, an instrument we don't get to hear as often as we would wish.
It is always a thrill to hear apprentices onstage, making an impact in smaller roles. Tenor Jonah Hoskins sounded great in the role of a sailor, singing a song that Isolde takes as insulting. Tenor Dylan M. Davis appeared as a shepherd responsible for playing a tune when Isolde's ship arrives to heal the dying Tristan. Baritone Erik Grendahl sang the role of the Steersman.
Although this particular production of this particular opera did not resonate with us, we admire Santa Fe Opera for tackling it and for bringing so much satisfaction to so many opera lovers. How gratifying that very few people left early. Although not overwhelmed we were left with some satisfying memories of King Marke and Kurvenal, the afore-mentioned woodwind solos, the play of John Torres' lighting on the set, and the formidable voices of Ms. Wilson and Ms. Barton.
Although we were not inspired to read more of Schopenhauer's philosophy, we were moved to think upon the heavy cost of betrayal. We did wonder how Wagner felt about his own bad behavior, betraying his wife and betraying his patrons by seducing their wives.
(c) meche kroop