Washington National Opera opens season with potent 'Tristan'

If we can believe the story -- and, really, what stories about this megalomaniacal guy can't we believe? -- Wagner called "Tristan und Isolde" a "wonder," and declared: "I shall never be able to understand how I could have written anything like it."

There's still something dismaying about this transcendent fusion of music and drama, propelled by revolutionary harmony, heated by a rare, poetic urgency.

There's something a little dismaying, too, about Washington National Opera's season-opening production of "Tristan," one of its greatest efforts the company has made in the past dozen or so years.

Just a week before the opening, after consulting with the company's new artistic director Francesca Zambello, stellar soprano Deborah Voigt bowed out of the cast, having made the brave decision that the role of Isolde no longer matched her abilities.

As a longtime admirer of this singer, I admired her even more for her action. But I worried that the late-in-the-game change would make things awfully difficult for the company. Well, it turns out that WNO recovered quickly from the setback and was more than ready for the first performance Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Voigt's picture still adorned the Playbill, and a note in the program by Zambello still promised that the soprano's singing would "thrill." But the day belonged to Voigt's replacement, Irene Theorin, who delivered some genuine thrills of her own as Isolde.

Theorin, a seasoned Wagnerian, demonstrated a fearless command of the score. Hers is not a particularly beautiful or distinctive voice, but it has enough warmth and more than enough strength to carry her through the long opera.

She articulated with admirable precision, popping out the highest notes with considerable power, and she added telling dynamic nuances to make her phrasing communicate richly at every turn.

The soprano also delivered a thoroughly persuasive portrayal of the doomed Irish princess -- imperious in the opening scenes, when Isolde is determined to kill herself and Tristan, who is carting her off to marry King Marke; endearingly girlish after the unexpected love potion has taken effect, when she and Tristan are turned into instant soul mates; exceptionally eloquent in the final scene, as Isolde slowly moves from angst to calm acceptance of what is truly a case of dying from love.

(Theorin looked a little calculating at the end of the "Liebestod," as she prepared to reposition herself next to the dead Tristan, but that stage business may become more natural as the run progresses. She sings again Wednesday, Saturday and Sept. 24; Alwyn Mellor takes the role for the final performance Sept. 27.)

Ian Storey was the gruff and ready Tristan. Whatever the tenor lacked in tonal warmth, he more than compensated with unfailingly expressive styling. His acting, especially in Act 3, proved highly potent as well. (Clifton Forbis sings the role Sept. 27.)

This Tristan and Isolde demonstrated genuine chemistry -- credit stage director Neil Armfield with avoiding as much park-and-bark as possible. Theorin and Storey made it easy to believe in magical love; when they traced their names in the air while lying on their backs, the effect proved exquisite.

There was a fair amount of supine singing, by the way, in this production, all the more impressive given that it was done on a raked platform suspended above the stage.

That unit set, from Opera Australia, is minimalist staging at its best. All that we need to establish place is there on that mostly bare raked area; everything else is subtly implied, thanks in large measure to Tony Sewell's lighting, through the huge, billowy curtains that frame the action. Jennie Tate's basically traditional costuming blends seamlessly with the staging concept.

On Sunday, Elizabeth Bishop offered a juicy tone and terrific intensity, vocal and dramatic, as Isolde's maid, Brangane. James Rutherford proved a fine asset as Tristan's trusty comrade Kurwenal. His voice was a little short on heft, but beautifully shaded, and he made every phrase count.

As the king, Wilhelm Schwinghammer also sounded a little underpowered, but sang with wonderful depth of expression.   

Solid work came from Javier Arrey (Melot). Yuri Gorodetski (Young Sailor and Shepherd) revealed a very promising tenor, bright and well-focused in tone, nuanced in phrasing.

From the first notes of the Prelude, it was evident that this "Tristan" was going to have an insightful guide in the pit. Conductor Philippe Auguin, the company's music director, kept the tension taut, the momentum steady. But the tenderest, most reflective passages still had plenty of breathing room, and the most delicate effects in Wagner's scoring could be fully savored.

Auguin could have heated up the closing moments of the Act 2 love duet more intensely, but that was a minor matter in light of the passion that he summoned elsewhere from the orchestra, which, even allowing for a couple of coordination slips, turned in exceptionally impressive playing. (Note that the ensemble includes a Holztrompete, the rare wooden trumpet Wagner called for in Act 3.)   

To be sure, everyone onstage was overwhelmed at some point by the waves of sound Auguin summoned from the orchestra, but it was hard to complain, given the emotional impact of it all. 

This remarkably satisfying production provides a worthy salute to the Wagner bicentennial, and a rousing affirmation of what Washington National Opera has going for it these days, with Zambello firmly at the helm. I can't wait to see and hear what happens next.

"Tristan" will be repeated Sept. 18, 21, 24 and 27.

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