Sunday, September 22, 2013

Because the Night...Tristan at WNO

Tristan und Isolde, Washington National Opera, September 18, 2013
Auguin; Theorin, Storey, Bishop, Rutherford, Schwinghammer

Well, DC's love affair with Phillipe Auguin shows no signs of abating if this past Wednesday's Tristan und Isolde (the second outing of this run) is any evidence. Auguin and the WNO received probably the biggest applause of the evening and it was well deserved, too. Again and again, Auguin found that Wagner sweet spot, maintaining a constant momentum while never noticeably shortchanging that critical stillness where needed. The WNO orchestra sounded gorgeous throughout, save, oddly, some pitchiness on a few of the solo violin parts.

The production, from Opera Australia, is straightforward but handsome, keying primarily off the first act's ship deck but abstract enough to serve for the other locales. There is a water feature, which is nice, but the finest moments came with some of the lighting effects, which brilliantly illuminate the monochrome set at choice moments, for instance, a spectacular sunrise for the end of the Act II duet. The blocking is restrained, allowing a focus on the music. The staging of the prelude, however, in which Isolde enters with Tristan early on, only to nap through the next 7 minutes or so, seemed like the worst kind of counterproductive prelude staging, where the audience was teased with enough stage action to distract from the music, but then given nothing of substance to make it worthwhile.

Deborah Voigt's cancellation had a happy ending, as the DMV got another chance to hear Irene Theorin, one of the heroes of WNO's memorable/infamous Gotterdammerung: In Concert several years back. She duly dominated Act I, with a thrilling conclusion to the curse narrative. Others may excel in sheer beauty of sound, but Theorin's solid, passionate sound ensured the big moments of Act I soared as intended.

While the orchestra remained in top form, the Act II duet was less successful vocally, with both Theorin and her Tristan, Ian Storey, encountering balance issues with the pit. Where Theorin's challenges seemed most likely a bit of miscalculation, Storey's limitations felt more fundamental. At forte, within a limited band, he turns out a great sound in a sort of rough and tumble Clifton Forbis mode. But getting traction on the delicate piano dynamics of the duet was a challenge. Getting this passage to fulfill its potential in real time always seems tremendously improbable, and this performance was no exception--significant effort notwithstanding, the magic didn't really click until shortly before the final climax. Baritone Wilhelm Schwinghammer offered a compelling Koenig Marke to close the Act. (Wagner skeptic friend at 2nd intermission: "That was the best part! At least he had some good points to make...")

While not ideal for Act II, Storey acquitted himself admirably in the great Act III sequence for Tristan, providing his scarred, granite voice providing a durable, effective vehicle for Tristan's madness. James Rutherford contributed a particularly sympathetic Kurwenal. Unfortunately, the castle invasion sequence ended up being a bridge too far for this intimate production, with clumsy handling of the scores of knights. I'm sure there's a production out there that gets this right, but how refreshing would it be to have this moment staged as a spasm of really cathartic violence instead of a string of slightly doofy opera fights? Great closing Liebestod from Theorin.

A winning night overall, and what a delight to start the season with something meaty rather than, say, warmed-over Tosca!