Tristan und Isolde

James Gaffigan
Chorus and Orchestra of Santa Fe Opera
23/27 July 2022
Opera Santa Fe
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanSimon O’Neill
IsoldeTamara Wilson
BrangäneJamie Barton
KurwenalNicholas Brownlee
König MarkeEric Owens
MelotEric Taylor
Ein junger SeemannJonah Hoskins
Ein HirtDylan M. Davis
SteuermannErik Grendahl

An uneven cast and dire staging undermines Tristan

The Tristan cast boasted the glorious Wagnerian soprano Tamara Wilson and the always magnificent mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, but an ugly production and awkward staging dragged down Santa Fe Opera’s first go at a Wagner opera since 2008.

Positive aspects of a deeply uneven Tristan und Isolde managed to prevail in the end – almost literally, as soprano Tamara Wilson delivered a superb ‘Liebestod’ in the wee hours of Saturday morning to bring things to a ringing climax. But instead of having her collapse serenely as most sopranos do, this misbegotten production opened the drab grey walls that had hemmed in the singers for much of the previous four hours, and she walked upstage into darkness, only to glow white and gold in an eerie light as the final measures played.

And there, in a nutshell, was the problem. Despite the best efforts of the cast, led by Wilson and Barton and beautifully supported by the conducting of James Gaffigan and impressive playing by the orchestra, they were done in repeatedly by numbing direction and sets. Scenic designers Charlap Hyman & Herrero Company assembled a collection of intersecting walls with holes for doors, folding in sections to suggest Isolde’s quarters on the ship in Act I, King Marke’s castle ‘garden’ (which consisted entirely of a fallen tree trunk) in Act II and Tristan’s home in Act III. The sets resembled a child’s paper cutout project.

Carlos J. Soto’s risible costumes did nothing for the dignity of the characters. Isolde’s sculptural red hair looked like a bicycle helmet, King Marke’s plush robe and streaky hair resembled a caricature and made him look silly, and Tristan’s ill-fitting armor and undergarments did not help. Some of the minor characters might have escaped from a Monty Python skit.

Directors Zack Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón gave the singers little to spur their interactions beyond clumsy blocking and actions that were wrong for their body types. We have all seen productions in which plus-size singers could suggest the passion of lovers or engage in a physical altercation. Not here.

Fortunately, the musical side was generally strong. Barton’s Brangäne was a marvel of richly polished legato and incisive inflection, an ideal companion to Wilson’s clarion soprano that made each of her spotlight scenes memorable. Eric Owens’ perfectly placed bass gave King Marke the dignity that his costume could not and made his every scene glow.

Among lesser roles, Nicholas Brownlee was a standout in his Santa Fe debut. He revealed a powerful baritone as Kurwenal – a savory preview of what he might do in next season’s The Flying Dutchman here.

The outlier among the leads was tenor Simon O’Neill, an accomplished Wagnerian who can still sing tirelessly. The vocal sound, however, was not pretty, its harsh metallic quality more suitable for a villain than a hero. Although he could shape a lyric phrase when called for (mostly in Act III), the louder he had to sing the more his strident and hard-edged sound grated on the ear.

Gaffigan, a conductor with unlimited versatility, brought a high level of energy and physical communication to the score. Though less expansive than what we usually hear, the music brimmed with subtle phrasing, created consistently elegant balances with the singers and drove home the power of Wagner’s music without going over the top.

Harvey Steiman | 5.8.2022

A Quiet Storm

Although the Santa Fe Opera has been going for some sixty-five years, it was not until the present season that it gave its first ever performance of Tristan und Isolde; before that, the only other Wagner opera to have appeared at the festival was Der fliegende Holländer (last performed in the 1980s, but scheduled to return next year). The relative absence of Wagner is perhaps not surprising: the open-air amphitheatre, which sits on the west-facing side of a hill in the majestic wilderness of northern New Mexico, is one of the great North American opera venues, but the fact that performances can’t begin until the sun goes down – usually around half-past eight during the height of summer – naturally precludes many of the longer works in the standard repertoire. Yet the presence of Tristan in this year’s programme was most welcome, and on the evening of its first performance the robust passions of Wagner’s score were enhanced considerably by the well-timed additions of a passing storm.

The staging – by Zack Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón – was minimal and elegant, but occasionally too static to convey much in the way of emotional immediacy. The action took place within an axonometric set of grey walls, which could fold in and out into different configurations, and which featured a series of barely perceptible doors from which characters could make their entrances and exits; when the doors were closed, one was left with the illusion of a space differentiated primarily through the right angles of its intersecting planes. In the second act the trunk of a fallen tree brought a touch of organic form to the extended love-scene, and in the third the addition of a bed and a strange illuminated sculpture transformed the space into Tristan’s home.

If the set was agreeably neutral, evoking no particular time or place, the staging itself seemed decidedly averse to action of any kind. Although groups of sailors were made to run across the stage at various points in the first act, they could not dispel the essential stasis that emerged during the series of lengthy dialogues, which generated their drama more from the nuanced line-readings of the singers than any obvious directorial intervention. In place of strong interactions there were a series of long-term lighting effects – notably the almost imperceptible shadow that crept up the back walls during the length of Tristan’s visit to Isolde – which were conceptually intriguing but perhaps too subtle for their own good.

Indeed it often seemed that the staging wanted to use deliberate movement and extreme stillness to create an hypnotic visual experience, but didn’t quite have the conviction to go through with it. There was something fitting about Tristan and Isolde lying nearly immobile during the languid central section of their second act scene, but their other encounters were meandering and bereft of spark: the unrestrained passions of Wagner’s score have rarely seemed so tentative. Nor did the staging’s penchant for uninflected scenes impart much universality (or depth) to the story and its characters: beneath the static tableaux one struggled to find symbolic meaning, a presiding argument, or anything as definite as a gloss on the libretto.

Fortunately nature itself filled in a few of the gaps. Isolde’s expressions of foreboding and despair at the beginning of the first act were mirrored by distant lightning to the north, while the shepherd’s lament in the prelude to Act Three was underscored by low rumbles of thunder. The elemental enhancements were at their most pronounced in the second act, in which the prelude was accompanied by the sound of light rain, soon replaced by a fearsome wind that made Isolde’s gown billow in anticipation of Tristan’s arrival; the storm seemed to subside during the love scene, but it returned along with King Marke at the end. While the involvement of nature at an outdoor venue can never be planned, on this evening it proved especially fortuitous.

If the staging went out of its way to avoid physical displays of emotion, Tamara Wilson’s subtly expressive delivery ensured that Isolde’s scenes were never lacking in dramatic spirit. Her narration of Morold’s death and Tristan’s disguised visit in the first act was consistently engaging, brisk enough to cohere as exposition but detailed enough to delineate a credible progression from anger to pity to shame. There were a few moments when the understatement of the staging seemed at odds with Ms Wilson’s reading – notably the opening of the second act, in which Isolde’s heightened anticipation was nearly effaced by a lack of meaningful stage movement – but the frequent stillness allowed Ms Wilson the luxury to craft beautiful contributions to the love scene and deliver a captivating Liebestod.

Throughout the evening Simon O’Neill’s Tristan remained far more reticent, although it was often difficult to determine how much this was simply a result of the staging. He seemed oddly untroubled by Isolde’s request for an audience in the first act, and when they did finally meet he was curiously passive, as though unaware of their prior encounters; after he had consumed the potion it was difficult to tell if it had worked. Yet his indifferent demeanour was often contradicted by moments of vocal inspiration: the ‘O sink hernieder’ section of the central duet captured the scene’s languid nocturnal mood, while his measured ‘So starben wir’ conveyed its own subtle ardour. By the third act he sounded wholly invested, shuttling back and forth between delirium and lucidity with impressive conviction; his voice seemed to gain in colour and depth during his evocation of eternal night.

As Brangäne, Jamie Barton sounded a touch underpowered in her earliest appearances, but her animated readings were consistently alert to the dramatic potential in the text; in the first act her hints of irony provided a welcome counterpoint to Isolde’s despair, her intermittent spectral appearances in the second act were magnificent, and in her final lines of the third act she offered an unusually convincing admission of her role in the tragedy.

Nicholas Brownlee’s Kurwenal, if not always subtle, had a remarkably powerful voice; the arrogance in his first-act reply to Brangäne was perhaps overstated, but his excitable laments for Tristan in the third act were alive with emotion.

The role of King Marke was ideally suited to the vocal strengths of Eric Owens, whose feel for the gravity of the story often transcended the limitations of the staging: in his commanding appearance at the end of the second act he traced a grand arc from sadness to disappointment while retaining his nobility of bearing and warmth of tone.

Conductor James Gaffigan led the orchestra through a graceful reading that alternated passages of brisk motivation and sections of contemplative detail without losing the thread of the drama. If there were a handful of moments in which the shifts in tempo seemed too extreme or too sudden – Kurwenal’s slowed-down response to Brangäne was followed by an unexpectedly rapid-fire continuation from the choir, and the agitated mood at the beginning of the second act was once or twice undercut by broad contrasts – Mr Gaffigan’s sense of pacing and elegant line offered a cohesive, unindulgent vision of the score.

The sound of the orchestra remained on the soft side even in the most tempestuous passages, but the balance between sections was kept under tight control, and there were several moments of fine solo-playing, notably the cor anglais at the beginning of the third act. If there were parts of the staging that seemed unengaged or wilfully underplayed, Mr Gaffigan’s long view of the drama and ability to coax gently lustrous playing from the orchestra ensured that that the evening was able to capture many of the emotional complexities in Wagner’s endlessly captivating score.

Jesse Simon | 5 de agosto de 2022

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 511 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (transmission date: 22 August 2022)
A production by Zack Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón (2022)
The first Tristan und Isolde production in Santa Fe