Tristan und Isolde

Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra
22 October 2006
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanThomas Moser
IsoldeChristine Brewer
BrangäneJane Irwin
KurwenalBoaz Daniel
König MarkeKristinn Sigmundsson
MelotMatthew O’Neill
Ein junger SeemannSean Panikkar
Ein HirtSean Panikkar
SteuermannJere Torkelsen

Toward the end of Act II, some three hours into San Francisco Opera’s Tristan und Isolde, the Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson strode onto the stage, opened his mouth, and out poured a gorgeous bass sound with effortless projection. Finally, true Wagnerian singing. I almost wanted to cry, because conductor Donald Runnicles was shaping such sensuous and compelling music with the orchestra in the pit. Those sounds deserved better than the other singers, valiant as they were, could manage.

In a smaller opera house than the cavernous War Memorial, no doubt Christine Brewer’s silver and cream Isolde would have triumphed, competing effectively with the marvelous swellings and sumptuousness coming from the pit. Tenor Thomas Moser, reportedly battling a cold, likewise found it difficult to get much heft into his Tristan. Jane Irwin, a regular with Scottish Opera making her U.S. opera debut, shaped Brangäne’s music beautifully but her high mezzo was perhaps too close to Brewer’s timbre to differentiate them easily.

That’s too bad, because all three singers put a great deal of detail into their characterizations. Brewer has the breath control and musical understanding to spin out Isolde’s long lines. Moser knows when to dig a little deeper to emphasize one of Tristan’s phrases. Irwin reacts to what’s happening on stage naturally and communicates Brangäne’s dilemmas well. They just lack that extra few ounces of intensity that distinguishes great Wagnerian singing from the rest. (In contrast, Boaz Daniel’s Kurwenal had the baritonal heft but lacked the attention to the text and the musical shape the others showed.)

It was not a matter of the orchestra being too loud. You could feel Runnicles reining the musicians in to give the singers a chance at finding a balance, but when the music must surge, it must surge, and it’s up to the singers to match the sound.

For Runnicles’ part, then company’s music director was busy shaping one of the most spacious, emotionally riveting performances of this, let’s face it, erotic music. The opening of the prelude found an undertone of sexual longing under the surface of tender wispiness, and when the music started to well up, it happened almost imperceptibly, naturally. Throughout the whole evening, musical matters such as tempo, balance, timbre, crescendos and decrescendos seemed to move organically.

Up on stage, the story played out against David Hockney’s painterly sets, which favor broad strokes over details. In the original staging, which I saw in Los Angeles in 1987 (featuring Jeannine Altmeyer, William Johns and conductor Zubin Mehta), much was made of special high-intensity gel lights that saturated the stage in rich colors. Without these lights, the sets come off as cartoonish, which is jarring against Wagner’s complex libretto and music.

There is still plenty of color, especially in the silvery blue of the night that starts Act II and dissolves into the reds, golds and oranges of dawn at the close of the act. The slow progression from dark to light echoes the poetic references to the dark night of Tristan and Isolde’s love contrasted against the daylight of the real world. The astonishing shape and steep rake of Tristan’s crag in Act III delivers a jolt on first sight, but without its ever-changing colors it’s not quite as powerful for the entire act.

Much is missing from what I remember from the 1987 run, most notably a magical moment when Brangäne’s warning interrupts the love duet in Act II. In L.A., the lovers had a small mound to lie upon. When Brangäne came out to her balcony, the deep blue, gray and silver lights saturated the lovers so thoroughly they seemed to melt into the mound. SFO’s version had no mound. Brewer and Moser simply walked into the forest. Where’s the magic in that? Not only that, but director Thor Steingraber has the lovers circling stage almost independently instead of focusing on each other. Please. They only care about each other. Nothing else. Show us.

There were moments when everything—singing, orchestral playing, staging and acting—did come together. Mark’s appearance and the array of red-hatted hunters around the fight between Melot and Tristan to end Act II came off brilliantly.

And, finally, in the Liebestod at the very end of the opera, Brewer was at her most radiant, the long breath and beautiful sound making for ravishing music. At the very end, she stands downstage right and spreads her arms in a gesture that we had seen first after she and Tristan drink the love potion in Act I and again during the love duet in Act II. Both times, Tristan echoes the same gesture behind Isolde. This time, as the light fades, Tristan rises from his death pose, moves slowly behind Isolde and frames her outstretched arms with his own, bringing them together into an embrace just as the spotlight on them fades to total black.

It is a perfect effect to a finish beautifully performed in all respects. Too bad it took four and a half hours to get there.

Harvey Steiman | 18.10.2006

Opera Today

Brewer makes Isolde hers in stage debut

SAN FRANCISCO — Christine Brewer took her time mastering Isolde before making her stage debut in the role with the San Francisco Opera in October. And she was wise in so doing, for her incarnation of Wagner’s most demanding woman was clearly the sensation of the SFO season.

Although a major Ariadne for the past decade, Brewer had never sung a note of Isolde in public until 2000, when she performed the role in concert — one act an evening — with the BBC Orchestra at London’s Barbicon. Critics celebrated that event as the best Wagner heard in the British capital in four decades. Brewer then did Isolde — again an act at a time — with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Peter Sellars’ “Tristan Project.” Only in August 2005 did she put it all together for the first time in a concert “Tristan” at the Edinburgh Festival. Jonathan Nott conducted the Bamberg Symphony. And prior to the San Francisco debut she recorded the “Liebestod” with Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony and a complete “Tristan” with the BBC Orchestra and Runnicles for Warner Classics with. John Treleaven as Tristan.

Brewer’s approach to a new role — the subject of many interviews with the soprano — focuses intensely on the text divorced from the music. She reads it over and over in the original language and then in her own literal translation. At the SFO the success of her method was underscored by the profundity that she brought to the exposition of the opera’s plot. For many singers Isolde’s recall of her earlier meeting with Tristan, how she spared his life and nursed him after he had killed her betrothed Morold, is something to be gotten through before delivering the curse upon them both. In her reconstruction of events Brewer made clear that this is the heart of “Tristan.” The love potion and what follows are only the unraveling of the tale spun here. Her growing agitation demanded shipboard confrontation with Tristan, without which everyone would have lived unhappily ever after.

Brewer is not one to wear her heart on her sleeve. Isolde’s torment seethed within her, and she laid bare this tempest of pain and passion step by step, building half the first act to the curse, which she delivered with shattering fury. Yet she sang the curse — just as in Act Two she sang the plunge of the torch into the abyss. She did not declaim; she eschewed Sprechstimme, and there was radiant beauty in every note.

Although American Thomas Moser will hardly go down in music history as a great Tristan, at the SFO he was very good in the role — solid and fully reliable. And he had the stamina to carry through to the end of Act Three — even in this uncut performance heard on October 10. Soon to sing Parsifal in Vienna with Runnicles on the podium, Moser is a tenor of taste and intelligence and a near-ideal partner for Brewer.

In this production Israel-born bass Boaz Daniel made his North American debut as Kurvenal, the role that he sang both in the BBC concert “Tristan” and on the Warner recording. He was the loyal servant of his master without overplaying his obedience, and in Act One his mockery of Isolde was comfortably low key. Daniel seems destined to be heard in leading roles for decades to come.

And it is not size alone that made Kristinn Sigmundsson a monumental King Marke — although the bass from Iceland is of dimensions that suggest Fafner and Fasolt in a single figure. And the voice is of equal proportions. In keeping with the overall perspective of this staging Sigmundsson’s second-act lament spoke not of self-pity, but of a deep and painful wound — something beyond his comprehension. (During the season Sigmundsson also sang a Sparfucile in the SFO “Rigoletto” that made the figure even more sinister than Verdi perhaps intended.)

England’s Jane Irwin, a regular in several European “Ring” productions, made her North American debut here as Brangäne. Her second-act warning to the enraptured couple floated with lilting lyricism into the reaches of the War Memorial Opera House.

Matthew O’Neill and Sean Pannikar, members of the SFO Adler studio, sang Melot and the Shepherd; veteran chorus member Jere Torkelsen was the steersman.

Thor Steingraber directed this re-staging of David Hockney’s production, new at the Los Angeles Opera in 1988. Hockney’s stunning use of primary colors, along with regally stylized costumes, complemented the static nature of Wagner’s score, a quality that allegedly prompted actress Beatrice Lilly to observe after Act One that for Germans love was obviously a state roughly akin to paralysis.

Much, of course, could still be said about this “Tristan” — the hurricane force of desire behind the “Liebesnacht,” the eye-moistening authenticity of lament in the “Liebestod, but what made it even greater than the sum of its many superb parts was the continuity brought to the work by Runnicles, one of today’s top Wagnerian conductors. Runnicles, praised in England as “a psychoanalyst summoning Leitmotivs like hidden memories,” allowed Wagner’s score to unfold with full force. For him this is true music drama, not an assembly of “greatest hits” separated by seemingly interminable — and thus often abbreviated — dialogue.

The SFO staging further profited from the fact that most members of the cast had been involved — in various constellations — in the “Tristan” productions in Edinburgh and London. Their interaction recalled the glories of ensemble perfection in the pre-jet-set age.

Runnicles, by the way, has announced his decision to leave the SFO music directorship at the end of the 2008-‘09 season. He has held the position since 1992.

Wes Blomster | 28 Oct 2006

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Live Opera Heaven, HO
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 519 MByte (MP3)
A production by David Hockney