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Standing Up for Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Houston Grand Opera's Tristan und Isolde is a feast for the ears.

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Hail, Nina Stemme, goddess of opera!

Hail, Houston Grand Opera for bringing her here!

Claudia Mahnke as Brangäne with Nina Stemme as Isolde.
Courtesy Houston Grand Opera
Claudia Mahnke as Brangäne with Nina Stemme as Isolde.

Hail, maestro Patrick Summers for a thrilling ride!

If you are, as I am, an unregenerate Wagnerite — or for that matter a lover of any exceptional operatic singing — there is reason for mighty celebration and a breathless run to Houston Grand Opera's Tristan und Isolde. You won't want to look at it, for director Christof Loy's production is misguided in conception and a dreary eyesore that drains all the fiery color out of the work, but just close your eyes and revel in the beauty of sound and depth of interpretation that Nina Stemme instills as the star-crossed princess of Ireland.

Any singer who can navigate through the heady waters of Richard Wagner and make it sound as easy as paddling a canoe across a calm lake is the rarest of the rare. Wagner's thick, rich texture runs through every register of the voice — passionate curses boom in the bass, sweet melody melts in the middle, heavy passion throbs on high. The theatricality is like a reef for the voice and many singers have been wrecked on his shoals. The last truly stupendous Wagnerian soprano was Swedish Birgit Nilsson, who ruled this repertoire from the 1950s through the 1970s. Stemme, another Swede and already an internationally acclaimed interpreter of Wagner, can securely wrap herself in Nilsson's mantle. The fit is perfect.

Her voice, full and round, is strikingly clean from top to bottom. It rings with clarion purity, yet is always warm and pliant. No need to strive to reach those Alpine summits Wagner throws in her path; she leaps from peak to peak with glee and pinpoint precision. In quieter passages, she caresses the musical line like an enthralled lover. To top it off, she's a consummate actress, alive in every scene, no matter what nonsense the director has her do. Since the century has just begun, I'm reticent to call her the "voice of the century," but I'm fairly certain that Stemme is most assuredly the voice of the decade.

Now, you can't have a complete Tristan and Isolde with only Isolde, no matter how radiantly sung. Sad to say, her Tristan, Canadian Ben Heppner, another international superstar and pre-eminent Wagner interpreter, is slogging through a rough patch lately. His voice, once trumpet bright, easily frays when pushed, and Wagner pushes hard. His gleaming heldentenor, still evident during softer scenes, is now arduously produced. With commanding technique and a professional's experience, he made it through Tristan's mad scene — one of opera's most demanding arias — and managed to resurrect past glory days. We hope Heppner overcomes these difficulties and resumes his rightful place in the Wagnerian pantheon.

The other members of the cast are downright revelatory, strong and powerful all down the line — mezzo Claudia Mahnke's velverty Brangäne, Isolde's faithful lady-in-waiting who instigates wayward passion by substituting a love potion instead of the poison Isolde demands; baritone Ryan McKinny's virile and riveting Kurwenal, Tristan's loyal aide-de-camp (anyone who can tie a bowtie while maneuvering through Wagner is above reproach); bass Christof Fischesser's betrayed and shattered King Marke, cuckolded by his wife and most beloved friend. The smaller roles are equally as accomplished: tenor Jon Kolbert's Shepherd; tenor Kevin Ray's slimy Melot, who rats out the couple; Scott Quinn's Sailor; and baritone Mark Diamond's Steersman. HGO's male chorus exudes burliness.

In a production dominated by a depressing palette of black, white and gray, director Loy, abetted by co-conspirators Johannes Leiaker (sets and costumes) and Olaf Winter (lighting), sucks all the drama out of Wagner's shape-shifting music. Instead of complementing, the design works against it, an interior mindscape that hints at arthouse movies like Last Year at Marienbad. Forget about Act One's medieval galleon plowing through the stormy Irish sea, or Act Two's endless beauty of a night sky to mirror the couple's escape into desire, or Act Three's overgrown, untended castle garden where Tristan lies dying. An immense curtain separates the sparse gray downstage area from an upstage banquet room outfitted for a plush wedding reception. Wearing tuxedos, the stag wedding party (sailors in the original) await the arrival of groom-to-be King Marke; when not in slow motion, they freeze in place when necessary. Isolde wears a strapless bridal gown; later she'll change into a formless little black dress for the "Love Duet." Instead of waiting in hot anticipation for her lover's tryst in Act Two, as the music feverishly depicts, Isolde prepares an intimate little supper for two, arranging napkins and plates on a lone table against the side wall. Don't bother with this arbitrary psychological hooey; close your eyes and drink deep of Wagner.

Disregarding the demented stage pictures, maestro Patrick Summers paints a glorious panorama. With clarity and empathy, he evokes every wave of ecstasy, fury, languor and remorse in Wagner's swirling soundscape. He connects with this score on a very deep level, driving it forward as if he were the opera's third lover. HGO's orchestra has never sounded more lush and shimmery. He makes us hungry to hear his leadership of the upcoming Ring cycle, which begins next April.

While lacking a full-blooded Tristan, HGO's blissful rendition of this operatic masterpiece is filled with more than enough vocal glories to compensate. Stemme, Summers, et al., conquer. Once you open your eyes, you'll be on your feet. For once, a truly deserved standing ovation.

 
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