Tristan und Isolde

Patrick Summers
Houston Grand Opera Chorus and Orchestra
18 April 2014
Wortham Theater Center Houston
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanBen Heppner
IsoldeNina Stemme
BrangäneClaudia Mahnke
KurwenalRyan McKinny
König MarkeChristof Fischesser
MelotKevin Ray
Ein junger SeemannScott Quinn
Ein HirtJon Kolbet
SteuermannMark Diamond

Balancing Act

Houston Grand Opera’s commitment to major German repertoire has produced stunning moments on the stage in recent seasons. Tristan und Isolde stood to be a test of the company’s mettle, and the company itself passed that test with flying colors. Sadly, the conducting, orchestral playing and singing were counterbalanced by a lackluster visual production and an unfortunate rendition of one of the title roles.

Tristan und Isolde, that epitome of all things unrequited, was on the HGO stage visually straightforward, almost to the point of being banal. In the Playbill, HGO Managing Director Perryn Leech writes that Tristan is a piece that is “much less defined as to period, setting and practical needs,” but a glance at the first pages of Wagner’s score seems to contradict Leech’s description. The composer indicates, in part: “Tent-like cabin on the fore-deck of a sea-going ship, richly hung with tapestries…Isolde on a couch, her face hidden in the cushions…” That is well-defined, but none of these or similar indications from Wagner’s pen seemed to matter to the production team. Indeed, Johannes Leiacker’s set design is completely fungible, able to hold any opera’s action. There simply was no point of view. Luckily, the other aspects of the production made up for this disappointment.

The casting, with one notable exception, was excellent. Nina Stemme was superb as Isolde, easily negotiating the challenging lines, carrying brilliantly over even the fullest orchestral textures, and masterfully portraying the contrasting emotional states in the opera’s three acts. During her alone time with Tristan in the second act, Wagner smartly lifts Isolde’s tessitura, and Stemme’s voice floated with ease while retaining its tremendous carrying power. In their many duets, Claudia Mahnke’s Brangäne was an excellent match for Stemme. She, too, possesses a large but focused voice with a gorgeous tone and was deft in her conveyance of Brangäne’s confounded emotional state. Christof Fischesser’s wonderful, rich bass fit the role of King Marke like a glove, and he too convincingly construed the complexity of his character. The surprise of the evening was Ryan McKinny’s Kurwenal. He has certainly graduated from his bit part in 2009’s Lohengrin, developing a voice much better suited for Wagner than for Britten. It is a joy to see such growth in his singing and acting and to hear him in larger roles.

The major problem with the entire production, however, was Ben Heppner’s Tristan. This simply is not a role he should sing anymore. Yes, there was a time that he was arguably the finest Tristan in the world, as can be witnessed on DVD from the Met under James Levine and various broadcasts from the late 1990s and early 2000s. The second act was uncomfortable to listen to. While Stemme gloriously soared through Wagner’s ecstatic lines, Heppner either couldn’t be heard or, if he could, his voice was often straining or he was resorting to falsetto for high notes that should ring loud and clear. While in the first act the voice was a little shaky, it wasn’t enough to unnerve Mr. Heppner, but in the second act the singer himself seemed uneasy with the sounds he was making. Fortunately, Heppner redeemed himself, for the most part, in the third act, although even here he was overshadowed by McKinny and, later, Stemme.

Patrick Summers clearly enjoyed diving into this score, and drew excellent playing from his orchestra. Wind solos from principal horn and cor anglais were excellent, especially the latter’s aching, extended solos in the third act. Summers paced the first act expertly. A slightly hesitant prelude led to a sustained first half and, when the love potion started coursing through the lovers’ veins, he ratcheted up the tension and evoked audible “wows” from several audience members at the act’s last chord. This bodes well for HGO’s upcoming Ring cycle, to be spread over four seasons.

Marcus Karl Maroney | Wortham Theater Center 04/18/2013

Opera News

The Houston Grand Opera presentation of Tristan and Isolde (seen Apr. 18) — a Christof Loy production previously seen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden — struck gold with its singers, several of whom were appearing on the HGO stage for the first time. Soprano Nina Stemme, in her HGO debut as Isolde, had a commanding stage presence, luminous voice and impassioned delivery that captured the full range of Isolde’s experience. Stemme’s lower range, in particular, is a marvel of depth and power that projected every syllable over Wagner’s rich orchestral accompaniment. Ben Heppner, also making an HGO debut, was Tristan: his large frame, brooding stage persona and smoldering, soulful tenor voice created a tragic hero both conspicuously masculine and poignantly vulnerable. One of his best moments, when Tristan drinks the potion, captured his expressive range: he is brusque and steely just before, and then, just after, liquefied in overwhelming desire. It was, however, a mixed night for Heppner: his voice gave out for a portion of Act II but then returned to full strength in Act III.

The Brangäne, Claudia Mahnke (another HGO debut artist), has a shimmering mezzo-soprano that soared out from the background in her watch song in Act II as confidante and accomplice to the lovers. Ryan McKinny’s dusky, vibrant bass-baritone captured each of the diverse phases of Kurwenal’s trajectory as Tristan’s comrade-in-arms, from swaggering to conflicted and finally to grieving. Christof Fischesser, the King Marke, was also making his HGO debut. There were many colors to his beautifully resonant bass that elicited both the magisterial authority and affecting sorrow of the king’s Act II confrontation with Tristan. Even the smaller roles — the perfidious Melot (tenor and HGO Studio Artist Kevin Ray) and the melancholic Shepherd (tenor Jon Kolbet) — were admirably filled in this remarkable cast of singers.

Set and costume designer Johannes Leiacker’s conception of the opera presents an unspecified modern setting, in which men wear tuxedos — except for Tristan, who wears plainer black attire. The staging centers on a foreground/ background division. The singing takes place in the foreground, on a raked stage that is bare except for a table and one or two utilitarian chairs placed against a stage-right wall. The background — a seeming banquet hall set slightly below the level of the foreground, sometimes hidden behind a curtain, sometimes open to the audience, and sometimes glimpsed through a narrow opening — shows us the context for the foreground action: the ship, presumably an ocean-liner, that bears Isolde to Cornwall (Act I); the main hall of King Marke’s palace (Act II); and radiant Isolde seated before a candelabrum, as emblazoned on Tristan’s memory in the first half of Act III.

Supernumeraries remain in the background. Director Loy has them move in slow motion unless they are singing in chorus, as if to evoke a circumstance that we are aware of but do not actually see.

Although it is generally engaging, Leiacker and Loy’s Tristan production is marred by a few details that are puzzling or distracting. Why does Isolde undress Brangäne at the beginning of Act II? Why is Tristan still alive during Isolde’s “Liebestod”? Why is Isolde seated and alive after the end of that monologue? The foreground is so dismally bare that it evokes nothing in particular. A spare staging can work well for Tristan and Isolde, but one that fails to inspire our imagination doesn’t do the work justice.

The full epic tragedy of Wagner’s masterpiece, however, was realized in the playing of the HGO Orchestra, led by Patrick Summers, who savored the long, long crescendos of the Prelude and deftly managed Wagner’s dialogue of signifying motifs between orchestra and singers. Desire dominates this story, of course, but there is also pain, regret and melancholy — affects that were borne out in exemplary orchestral solos, especially on the bass clarinet (Molly Mayfield) and English horn (Robert Atherholt).


Houston Pres

Tristan and Isolde at the Houston Grand Opera Is a Feast for the Ears

If you are, as I am, an unregenerate Wagnerite — or for that matter a lover of any type of exceptional operatic singing, be it Wagner or any other composer — there is reason for mighty celebration and a breathless run to Houston Grand Opera’s presentation of Tristan und Isolde. You may not want to look at it, for director Christof Loy’s production is misguided in conception and a dreary eyesore that drains all the seething passion out of the work (more on that later), but just close your eyes and revel in the beauty of sound and depth of interpretation that Ms. Stemme instills in the fiery 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. Not every generation is so fortunately blessed. Herr Wagner’s thick and rich vocal textures, which declaim through every register of the voice — passionate curses that boom in the bass, sweeter melody in the middle, and other worldly passion on high — are mine fields for the voice. Many singers have been wrecked on his shoals. The last truly stupendous Wagnerian soprano was Swedish Birgit Nilsson, who ruled his strenuous repertoire from the ’50s through the ’70s. Ms. Stemme, another Swede and another international interpreter of Wagner, can securely wrap herself in Ms. Nilsson’s mantle. The fit is perfect.

Her voice is scrumptious, strikingly clean from top to bottom. It rings out with clarion purity, yet always warm and radiantly alive. No need for her to scoop to reach those Alpine summits that Wagner throws in her path, she gleefully leaps from peak to peak with supernatural grace and pinpoint precision. In the quieter passages, she caresses the musical line as if a lover enthralled. 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’s just begun, I am reticent to call her the “voice of the century,” but I can proclaim with assurance that Ms. 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, international operatic superstar and preeminent Wagner interpreter, is slogging through a rough patch lately. His voice, once trumpet bright, easily frays when pushed hard, and Wagner pushes hard. His gleaming heldentenor, still evident in softer scenes, is now arduously produced. With commanding reserve and a pro’s experience, he miraculously made it through Tristan’s mad scene — one of any opera’s most demanding arias — and managed to resurrect past glory days. We pray Heppner overcomes these difficulties and resumes his rightful place in the Wagnerian pantheon.

Dominated by a depressing palette of black, white, and grey, director Loy, abetted by co-conspirators Johannes Leiaker (sets and costumes) and Olaf Winter (lighting), slaps all the drama out of Wagner’s overwhelmingly expressive music. Forget about the galleon plowing through the stormy Irish sea, or the endless beauty of a night sky for the couple’s escape into desire, or even the overgrown, untended castle gardens with their overlook to the sea where Tristan lies dying. Instead of a complement to Wagner’s endlessly fascinating orchestration, we’re treated to an interior mindscape as if watching The Last Days of Marienbad. Behind the immense curtain, which separates the sparse grey downstage, lies a sketch of a ballroom outfitted for a wedding reception. Wearing tuxedos, the chorus of sailors await the arrival of groom King Marke; Isolde wears an off-the-shoulder contemporary white bridal gown. They move in slow motion to suggest, I assume, that they’re embodiments of somebody’s psychological projections. The concept doesn’t get any better. Instead of waiting in hot anticipation for her tryst with her lover in Act II, as the music feverishly depicts, Isolde prepares a neat little supper, arranging napkins and plates on a lone table against the steely side wall. Just close your eyes and drink deep of Wagner.

Maestro Summers closes his eyes to the stage pictures and paints a glorious panorama. He evokes every wave of Wagner’s swirling soundscape that swells with ecstasy, fury, languor, and remorse with sublime clarity and marvelous empathy. 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.

The other members of the cast were downright revelatory, strong and powerful all down the line. Mezzo Claudia Mahnke brings velvety warmth to Brangne, Isolde’s faithful lady-in-waiting who instigates wayward passion by substituting a love potion instead of the poison Isolde demands. Her warning to the illicit couple to be on guard, “Habet acht,” caressed the night air with haunting premonition. Baritone Ryan McKinny could not have sung Kurwenal any better. As Tristan’s trusted aide-de-camp with unbounded loyalty, McKinney, with handsome stage presence to spare and voice to die for, was positively riveting. (Anyone who can tie a bowtie while also maneuvering through Wagner is above reproach!) Bass Christof Fischesser mesmerized as King Marke, cuckolded by his wife and most beloved friend. He gets just one aria in the opera, a long and impassioned cry of betrayal that ultimately breaks his heart. Fishesser’s booming, enveloping voice broke ours too, keeping us enrapt not only with sheer beauty of tone but his absolute command of the role. The smaller parts, though hardly unimportant to the drama, were equally as committed. Tenor Jon Kolbert’s Shepherd; tenor Kevin Ray’s slimy Melot, who betrays Tristan; Scott Quinn’s Sailor; and baritone Mark Diamond’s Steersman were thoroughly envisioned and wondrously sung, as was HGO’s always superlative male chorus.

The Verdict:
While lacking a full-blooded Tristan, HGO’s blissful rendition of this immortal operatic masterpiece is filled with more than enough vocal glories to compensate. Ms. Stemme, et al., conquers. Once you open your eyes, you’ll be on your feet. For once, a thoroughly deserved standing ovation.

D. L. GROOVER | APRIL 20, 2013

Houston Chronicle

Swedish soprano commanding in HGO’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’

Is there any love story in which love conquers as much – up to and including death – as it does in “Tristan and Isolde”?

The couple at the center of Richard Wagner’s opera are seized by other passions as fierce as the one that ultimately binds them together. The most potent thing about Houston Grand Opera’s staging of “Tristan” is that it brings those other urges – especially his fatalism and her initial scorn of him – blazing into view.

Ben Heppner and Nina Stemme sing the title roles with power and abandon – though a rough patch that Heppner hit midway through the first performance serves notice of vocal troubles he has long battled. Conductor Patrick Summers plays up the vividness and momentum of Wagner’s music. Stage director Christof Loy strips away the story’s medieval trappings, dressing the protagonists in plain modern clothes.

On opening night, Stemme performed a feat: She gave Isolde human believability as well as Wagnerian grandeur.

While the Swedish soprano’s voice commanded the richness and power to match the orchestra in Wagner’s outpourings, at times it also hardened into scornful bite or melted in tenderness. In fact, Stemme encompassed all that within moments during Isolde’s backstory narrative about the bad blood between her and Tristan: When she described being poised to stab him until she looked into his eyes, the caress in her voice captured the change of heart that opens the door to the rest of the story. She began the climactic “Liebestod” just as gently, making it an outpouring of affection – not just a big finish to a four-hour German opera.

And this Isolde was no stereotypical Wagner heroine-in-a-helmet. Much of the time, her appearance was just that of a woman with uncoiffed hair and a plain black dress. Yet she was arresting nonetheless, mocking the swagger of smug men sizing her up for a forced marriage; leaning against a wall for support when she despaired; falling to the stage after drinking the love potion and letting a moment of delirium flash across her face.

Director Loy no doubt helped shape that immediacy. He and designer Johannes Leiacker created a stage-within-a-stage. The austere front section, consisting of little more than a sloped stage with a bare wall at the audience’s left, was where most of the action played out. To the rear, a curtain sometimes opened to reveal a ballroom decked out with tables and candelabra. When filled with black-tied men, it could have represented the bachelor party for Isolde’s betrothed, King Marke – which would be Loy’s idea, not Wagner’s.

When Heppner’s Tristan drifted out from the ballroom for his first appearance, his downcast demeanor gave the first signal of the world-weariness that exploded from him in Act 3. But Loy’s gambits distracted at least as often as they illuminated. During Tristan and Isolde’s love duet, the curtain opened to reveal their closest companions – Brangäne, Isolde’s lady-in-waiting, and Kurwenal, Tristan’s fellow soldier – getting cozy. That came from nowhere, certainly not from Wagner, and it led nowhere.

But there was a bigger hitch in the duet on opening night. During Act 1, Heppner’s weighty, bronze tones were the vocal embodiment of Tristan’s brooding. But in Act 2, in midduet, the Canadian tenor suddenly lost his grip. His voice turned shaky, its sound paled, and it repeatedly cracked or came close. It bore every mark of a voice destined not to complete the performance.

Yet Heppner eventually recovered. When he reached Tristan’s outcries in Act 3, he sang with a cataclysm ring, force and urgency.

As the protagonists’ friends, Brangäne and Kurwenal, Claudia Mahnke and Ryan McKinny sang with a dynamism that enabled them to add their own impact to the story. The bite of McKinny’s voice especially suited Loy’s staging, which has Kurwenal treating Isolde as if Tristan were worthier than she – intensifying Isolde’s fury. As Isolde’s humiliated bridegroom, King Marke, bass Christof Fischesser sang with duly anguished tones.

Summers and the orchestra brought out the score’s color, impetus and character – from the sweetness of the lyricism to the explosiveness underlining the characters’ emotional outbursts. This wasn’t the spacious, mystical approach to “Tristan” that some conductors take. But it suited what the cast and Loy were doing: playing up the opera’s red-blooded humanity. The orchestra helped tell the story.

Steven Brown | April 22, 2013

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320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 468 MByte (MP3)
A production by Christof Loy (premiere)