The Seattle Opera presents a magnificent “Tristan and Isolde”
Expectations are high when the Seattle Opera performs Wagner. Due to the company’s rich history with the monumental works of this composer, opera-goers were prepared for great music on the opening night of “Tristan and Isolde.”
And indeed, there was superb music from a top-notch cast and orchestra on Saturday night. But what few could have foreseen is how magnificent this “Tristan” (through October 29) would be – and how the brilliant use of stage projections can draw audiences into the inner world of the two protagonists. Wagnerian opera is known for its long dialogues and monologues where little action takes place. (There’s an old joke about a Wagnerian director’s only advice: “Stand there and sing.” Not this time!)
Director Marcelo Lombardero and set designer/videographer Diego Siliano have created a game-changing “Tristan” with this remarkable production. Here, the characters’ world changes around them, as video projections envelop the scene in ever-changing locales – from stormy seas to starry skies and beautiful forest vistas. At key moments, an elevating platform lifts Tristan and Isolde literally into a world apart, surrounded by vivid swirls of clouds and stars as they greet a “night of love”. It’s breathtaking; we literally see the universe change around the two singers, as they are enveloped in a different and beautiful reality that reflects how they feel.
What a godsend this development could be, allowing opera companies to change the entire set in seconds to reflect what singers are feeling and singing. This is perhaps the most beautiful and effective direction in the design of opera sets; it will be interesting to see how this trend develops. Kudos to lighting designer Horacio Efron and video animator Matias Otálora.
Fortunately, the singers and orchestra, under the direction of conductor Jordan de Souza, also ensure that musical values are paramount. The orchestral Prelude of Act III was particularly successful, with a rich and warm symphonic sound ushering in the tragic finale.
From her first scene to the last “Liebestod” (“love-death”), Mary Elizabeth Williams sang her first Isolde with an authority and brilliance that illuminated one of the most difficult roles in the operatic repertoire. Her voice has the unwavering power and weight of the role, but she also has the subtlety of “lowering” that intensity to convey tenderness and uncertainty. Williams is a compelling actress, whether furious at an arranged marriage or ecstatic with love for Tristan.
Stefan Vinke, a seasoned Wagnerian who made his Seattle debut in 2013’s “Ring,” is an authoritative Tristan; he sang with powerful energy and stamina even in the ultimate challenge of Act III. Its final scene, as Tristan recedes into death after recognizing Isolde, was deeply moving, capped by Williams’ radiant “Liebestod.”
The supporting cast was remarkably good. Amber Wagner was a first-rate, powerful yet nuanced Brangäne; she is a main plot driver to secretly supply Tristan and Isolde with the fateful love potion. Warm-voiced bass Morris Robinson provided a moral compass and appropriate gravitas as King Marke (whom Isolde was meant to marry). His dignity and decency underline the bitterness of their betrayal. And Ryan McKinney’s faithful, resonant Kurwenal was a lifeblood throughout production. Viktor Antipenko was effective as the villainous Melot.
The unsung heroes of any Wagnerian opera are the orchestral musicians, who grapple with this huge, glorious score for over four and a half hours. Congratulations to all, especially to the eloquent English horn of Stefan Farkas, whose solo passages added so much to the atmosphere of nostalgia and grief.
Not all of the audience had the staying power of the Wagnerian cast; there was a scattering of empty seats around the house when Act III began. Early starts missed some of the production’s finest and most heartbreaking moments.