Twice in the last 11 years Houston Grand Opera has taken serious steps to stage Tristan and Isolde, one of Richard Wagner's most radical, innovative and, frankly, draining works. But each time, the company couldn't quite bring the production to fruition, let alone the stage. HGO finally reached a public audience last week with its third attempt at Tristan, and it appears to be that proverbial charm. Judging from the response of those who braved frigid rain on opening night and then sat through five hours of music, including two 20minute intermissions, HGO did well to wait until it had all the right pieces. Few in the crowd seemed aware that it was well past midnight when the final curtain fell.
Time is the primary concern whenever a company produces Tristan: The length of the opera can exhaust not only audiences, but also artists. When HGO first considered staging Tristan in 1989, the music staff found it difficult to attract singers who had mastered the lead roles, which take enormous amounts of stamina for anyone, experienced or not. You have to be able to stand and sing for four straight hours.
Finding the right talent is only part of the problem, of course. Production costs are another. Small companies don't even bother with the opera, for obvious reasons: In HGO's current production, the 90-piece orchestra and 36-member chorus alone cost $640,000. The entire bill for a six-performance run will amount to nearly $1.6 million. That's larger than the entire budgets of some nonprofits in town.
Though he lobbied hard for it, Christoph Eschenbach never got the chance to conduct Tristan during his 11-year tenure with the Houston Symphony. As fate would have it, he would have to wait for the first season after he left. Pairing the esteemed German conductor with the right singers was no easy task for HGO, but the company found the appropriate vocal power in Austrian soprano Renata Behle and Danish heldentenor Stig Andersen. Combined with British artist David Hockney's abstract set designs, these artists created a vivid tableau that underscored the romantic and surreal preoccupations of Wagner's story.
In Wagner's version of the medieval romance, an Irish princess named Isolde tries to avenge her fiancé's death by poisoning Tristan, the knight from Brittany who mortally stabbed him. But her maid, Brangäne, slips Tristan a love potion instead. Watching him drink, Isolde grabs the goblet in a death wish and takes a huge gulp of the drink herself. Suddenly the two enemies find themselves in a healthy embrace, unable to resist each other. They seek solace in one another at night amid lengthy diatribes on love, loyalty and death. For Tristan, every minute he spends with Isolde is a betrayal of the Cornish king who hired him to fetch the princess to become his bride. When the two finally get caught, the lovers are separated.
In the first two acts Isolde assumes such prominence it is hard not to see the story through her eyes. Behle renders Isolde's multiple faces with rare skill. As Tristan carries her aboard the ship that's headed for King Marke, she reels off stout, penetrating lines, avowing her desire to avenge her fiancé's death. Over and over she bellows her hatred for the knight in querulous, dissonant harmonies. But in Act II, after drinking the potion, Behle does an emotional about-face. Scoffing at her maid's warning, she rushes to meet Tristan with deep-throated, tuneful yearning. And in the last act, when she sings the famous "Liebestod" over Tristan's corpse, she, as the last voice we hear, complements the undeniable pining of the strings and woodwinds.
The lovers' tryst in Act II is probably the longest duet ever performed on stage. Filled with regret and angst, the two argue, embrace, console and even pontificate. Most of the real drama in the story lies in the lovers' verbal cooing and sparring. It's a good thing, then, that Andersen creates a Tristan as convincing as Behle's Isolde, even if it takes him several scenes to get there. Midway through their rendezvous Andersen slowly begins to fill out his character, making it fully three-dimensional. But he doesn't start to luxuriate in the role until King Marke catches him seducing Isolde midway into Act II. By the third act, his insane, nihilistic rants over Isolde's absence elicit genuine sadness.
In some moments Norwegian Carsten Stabell's commanding King Marke, full of ringing bass melodies, overshadows Andersen's Tristan. The tall Nordic bass hangs his head in disappointment when he learns his favorite knight has stolen his new bride. American baritone Christopher Robertson is equally engaging as Tristan's faithful compadre Kurwenal. Singing the role of Brangäne, American mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar sounded determined and plaintive, holding her own during lengthy scenes with Isolde in the first act.
Most operas written by Wagner's contemporaries gave the human voice precedence over the sounds of the orchestra. But Wagner created a new form, a seamless interweaving of human and orchestral voices. He took his craft so seriously, he insisted on complete silence and dim house lights during the entire performance. At the time, audiences had grown used to talking and getting up during the show.
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Eschenbach beautifully exploits the opera's asynchronous and dissonant voices, creating a sublime blend of the human and orchestral sounds. From time to time, Wagner's score reaches toward the atonal, which is a welcome diversion, especially during scenes when the leads just stand and sing for long periods. From the prelude to the closing strains of the plaintive "Liebestod," the orchestra ably weaves its instrumental voices with those of the principal cast to create the composer's trademark flow of melody.
Another integral part of HGO's success lies in the use of Hockney's raked sets. Ships, castles and the rocky mountains of Tristan's native land are cast in bright, surreal hues and avant-garde shapes. The dazzling sets lend a cinematic, visual diversion to the otherwise static drama. In HGO's Tristan, the visual and aural blend to convey the inner longing of thwarted passion.
The inner longing of thwarted passion? That sounds like an apt description of HGO's own frustrated history with Tristan and Isolde. Consider the company's passion for the opera no longer thwarted. It's in full bloom now.
Houston Grand Opera performs Tristan and Isolde through February 11 at the Wortham Theater Center, Texas Avenue at Smith Street, (713)227-ARTS. $22-$182.