Tristan und Isolde

Jordan de Souza
Seattle Opera Choir and Orchestra
21 October 2022
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall Seattle
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanStefan Vinke
IsoldeElizabeth Williams
BrangäneAmber Wagner
KurwenalRyan McKinny
König MarkeMorris Robinson
MelotViktor Antipenko
Ein junger SeemannAndrew Stenson
Ein HirtAndrew Stenson
SteuermannJoshua Jeremiah

Seattle Opera has long championed the operas of Richard Wagner. Legendary impresarios Glynn Ross and Speight Jenkins – the latter, at 85, still cutting a dapper figure in the audience this week – established Seattle as one of the few places outside of Bayreuth where one could regularly hear summer Ring cycles, hear every one of Wagner’s operas, and attend an international Wagner signing competition.

While the company has retrenched somewhat in recent years, it remains committed to its Wagnerian roots. Enthusiastic audiences are packing McCaw Auditorium for the company’s new production of Tristan und Isolde.

German Heldentenor Stefan Vinke, who sings smaller roles in major houses, shares top billing with American soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, who makes her role debut as Isolde. Both possess an essential quality rare these days: the vocal heft to cut through the orchestral sound to the back of a large hall.

Yet, on the night I attended, both struggled technically – in part because of the strain of pushing smaller voices to fit these outsized roles. Vinke sang many extended passages flat, and the vocal timbre in the upper voice, though often brilliant, often lacked the requisite baritonal weight and color.

Williams, clearly far less familiar with Wagnerian style and diction to start with, fought an unevenness of vocal registers. At forte, passages in the upper middle portion of her voice curdled and hardened, while many lower-lying passages disappeared entirely. Perhaps to combat this, Williams tended to slide or scoop into notes, thereby even further distorting the musical line and German diction. Sung in this way, Isolde’s climactic Liebestod remained earthbound rather than transcendent.

Both singers faced the greatest challenges in Act II, where the long love duet demands loud, agile, and coordinated singing beyond their ability. Elsewhere, however, they offered moments of powerful interpretive insight.

Most moving of all were the Act III monologues, with their lighter orchestration, during which Vinke’s mellowed his timbre and delivered the full intensity of existential suffering that underlies Tristan’s romantic passion. For her part, Williams also excelled in quieter passages, when her voice gained focus – something that suggests that Wagner singing does not come naturally, but requires that she force her voice.

By contrast, Amber Wagner’s Brangäne illustrates the vocal ease, richness, and power once taken for granted in Wagner singing and now almost extinct. No other Wagnerian singer today can match her ability to flood large spaces with warm, evenly-produced tone, while projecting intelligible German. She sings from the heart, and thus it would perhaps be a quibble to point out that a bit more dynamic restraint and an instrumental tone quality might better suit this supporting character.

Other characters were engagingly cast. Baritone Ryan McKinney brings vivid shades of dynamics and color to Tristan’s stolid squire Kurwenal. Tenor Viktor Antipenko sings assertively while avoiding the stridency that often tempts those cast as treacherous Melot. Morris Robinson possesses a deep and even bass voice but has yet to command the legato phrasing and hushed tones that allow König Marke’s two melancholy monologues to dig deep. Tenor Andrew Stenson’s well-projected Sailor, opened the opera uncommonly well, not least because the staging dictates that he sing from within the theater. The other characters on stage stared out into the house as if wondering whence the sound comes – a reminder that this is diegetic music that the characters hear, not Wagner’s orchestral evocation of their interior life.

Conductor Jordan de Souza is a 35-year-old Canadian prodigy. He has already moved through career phases as a virtuoso organist and a Baroque choral conductor, and now heads the prestigious Komische Oper Berlin and globetrots as an opera conductor. His crisp cues, rhythmic flow, and ability to create a transparent and delicately balanced soundscape signal remarkable self-assurance in someone conducting this difficult score for the first time. A decade from now, he may well be hailed as one of the greats among modern opera conductors – and I imagine that he will develop a firmer command of this opera’s climactic moments. The orchestra responded splendidly through the night – with the despondent English horn solo in Act III more beautifully phrased than I have ever heard.

The new production directed by an Argentinian team led by Director Marcelo Lombardero rests on a sound premise, namely that Tristan and Isolde inhabit a world that exists only for them – and a world that we can glimpse only dimly through the myths we construct about them. Certain moments succeed brilliantly, notably the act-ending freezes of silhouetted figures, as if the story is becoming an epic legend before our eyes. Also, the sets reflect ample sound back into the hall – an essential acoustical detail too many modern productions neglect. Elsewhere, however, Stage Designer Diego Siliano might rethink the projected drawings of medieval kitsch, videos of “passionate” waves, clumsy mechanical scene changes, and an annoyingly invasive scrim.

Andrew Moravcsik | October 2022

The Seattle Times

Seattle Opera presents a gorgeous ‘Tristan and Isolde’

Expectations run high when Seattle Opera presents Wagner. Because of the company’s storied history with that composer’s monumental works, operagoers were prepared for great music on opening night of “Tristan and Isolde.”

And indeed, there was superb music from a first-rate cast and orchestra Saturday night. But what few could have anticipated is how gorgeous this “Tristan” (running through Oct. 29) would look — and how the brilliant use of projections on the stage can draw the audience into the inner world of the two protagonists. Wagnerian opera is known for its lengthy dialogues and monologues where not much action takes place. (There’s an old joke about the sole advice of a Wagnerian stage director: “Stand there, and sing.” Not this time!)

Stage director Marcelo Lombardero and set/video designer Diego Siliano have created a game-changing “Tristan” with this remarkable production. Here the characters’ world changes around them, as video projections envelop the stage in constantly shifting locations — from stormy seas to starlit skies and beautiful forest vistas. At key moments, a platform lift elevates Tristan and Isolde literally into a world of their own, surrounded by vivid swirls of clouds and stars as they hail a “night of love.” It’s breathtakingly lovely; we see the universe literally change around the two singers, as they are enveloped in a different and beautiful reality that reflects what they’re feeling.

What a boon this development could be, enabling opera companies to change the entire set within seconds to reflect what the singers are feeling and singing. This may well be the most beautiful and effective direction in operatic set design; it will be intriguing to see how this trend develops. Hefty cheers to lighting designer Horacio Efron and video animator Matias Otálora.

Fortunately, the singers and the orchestra, under the direction of conductor Jordan de Souza, also ensure that the musical values are paramount. The orchestral Prelude to Act III was especially fine, with a warm, rich symphonic sound ushering in the tragic finale.

From her first scene to the final “Liebestod” (“love-death”), Mary Elizabeth Williams sang her first Isolde with an authority and brilliance that illuminated one of the most challenging roles in the operatic repertoire. Her voice has the unflagging power and heft for the role, but she also has the subtlety to “dial down” that intensity to convey tenderness and uncertainty. Williams is a compelling actor, whether she is raging against an arranged marriage or ecstatic with love for Tristan.

Stefan Vinke, a seasoned Wagnerian who made his Seattle debut in the 2013 “Ring,” is an authoritative Tristan; he sang with powerful energy and stamina even in the ultimate challenge of Act III. His final scene, as Tristan subsides in death after recognizing Isolde, was deeply affecting, capped by Williams’ radiant “Liebestod.”

Amber Wagner as Brangäne and Mary Elizabeth Williams as Isolde in “Tristan and Isolde.” (Sunny Martini) The supporting cast was remarkably good. Amber Wagner was a first-rate Brangäne, powerful but nuanced; she is a prime mover in the plot for secretly providing Tristan and Isolde with the fateful love potion. The warm-voiced bass Morris Robinson provided a moral compass and suitable gravity as King Marke (whom Isolde was supposed to marry). His dignity and decency underscore the bitterness of their betrayal. And Ryan McKinny’s loyal, resonant Kurwenal was a vital element throughout the production. Viktor Antipenko was effective as the villainous Melot.

The unsung heroes of any Wagnerian opera are the orchestra players, who are grappling with that huge and glorious score for more than four and a half hours. Kudos to them all, particularly to the eloquent English horn of Stefan Farkas, whose solo passages added so much to the atmosphere of longing and heartbreak.

Not all the audience possessed the stamina of the Wagnerian cast; there was a scattering of empty seats among the house when Act III began. The early departers missed some of the most beautiful and heart-rending moments in the production.

Melinda Bargreen | Oct. 18, 2022

Melding Images From Mythology With Fantasy Comics

Seattle Opera acquitted itself quite well Oct. 15 with its first production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde since 2013. The production, which continues through Oct. 29 (with Heidi Melton replacing Mary Elizabeth Williams as Isolde on Oct. 23), was especially notable for its role and company debuts: the first Isolde from company favorite Williams and first Seattle Opera appearances by Amber Wagner (Brangäne), Viktor Antipenko (Melot), Joshua Jeremiah (Steersman), Jordan de Souza (conductor), and everyone associated with debuting stage director Marcelo Lombardero’s remarkably effective production.

With set and video design by Diego Siliano, ideal lighting by Horacio Efron, costumes by Luciana Gutman, and video animation by Matías Otálora, the production was originally created for Teatro Argentino de la Plata outside Buenos Aires. As much as Lombardero may claim inspiration from fantasy comic books, much of what we see projected onto a scrim and a screen at the stage’s rear combines repeat loops of ocean waves and stormy seas with symbolism from the Middle Ages and the Romantic era. At times, scenes resemble images from German mythology and Wagnerian opera found on the walls of the castle in which Wagner’s major sponsor, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was raised.

Through its reliance on various shades of white, black, and gray, the scenery effectively communicates the bleakness of a philosophy in which love and deliverance can only be realized through death. When color appears, as in Isolde’s rich purple and Brangäne’s rich blue-green gown and robes, it stands in sharp contrast to the grimness of the lovers’ fate and the rugged coastlines of Cornwall and Brittany. But when the mood turns to hope and love, the sky glows blue or becomes filled with twinkling stars.

At other times, the stage was framed, as though looking at a play within a play. Especially effective were those moments when the production highlighted emotional and metaphysical transformation, such as the first effects of the love potion or the suggested tryst between fully clothed lovers, by elevating and separating Tristan and Isolde from the rest of the action. I’m not going to give it all away, but it’s quite powerful, especially in the marvelously realized “Liebestod.” Less effective were the cartoonish appearance of the offstage Sailor, which served no artistic purpose, and the abrupt bump as the sea video reached its end and looped back again during exposed vocal solos.

De Souza’s conducting was puzzling. Accustomed as I am to the strength with which Donald Runnicles approaches Wagner, I wasn’t prepared for an orchestra that, even in the Prelude and other solo passages, only occasionally rose to forte. Rarely did we hear great percussive force or find ourselves carried away by the irresistible sweep of the music.

As for the singing, the distinction between the classical Wagnerian midrange bloom, body, and heft of Amber Wagner’s beautifully vocalized Brangäne and the strong but fundamentally lyrical voice of Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Isolde did not make for an ideal blend. De Souza wisely compensated by restraining the orchestra much of the time. The beauty of Williams’ voice was most prominent when she floated notes in her upper midrange, but the role seemed to afford too few opportunities to do so. In contrast to her servant’s strength and ease, Williams often sounded like a soprano working hard to hold her lines together. Far too many notes were approached from an octave below, and far too many phrases sounded choppy. Every note was there — only one was shouted — but it seemed very much a performance in the making or an assumption best visited infrequently.

As Tristan, Stefan Vinke displayed the clarion steel of a Wagnerian heldentenor. Consistent beauty of timbre and legato, however, took a back seat to might. Most uncomfortable was the start of the love scene with Isolde, where each artist sounded so determined to punch out their notes that harmony was non-existent. Only when the music softened and grew more lyrical in nature did it seem as though the two were listening and tuning to each other.

It was in his final scene that Vinke rose to the occasion. His delirium seemed real, and his highs cut through the air with determination and fortitude. But perhaps due to the conducting, much of the final act seemed overly long and lacking in urgency.

Williams and De Souza saved their best for last. The “Liebestod,” sung at a pace that far more resembled Lotte Lehmann’s famed 1930 recording than the slow-slower-slowest tempos favored by some recent Isoldes, was strong, beautifully vocalized, rapturous, and transcendent. It seemed the one place where the soprano relaxed, trusted, and let be. De Souza was with her every step of the way.

In contrast, the late-opera appearance of Morris Robinson (King Marke) provided true deliverance. As in Cincinnati Opera’s recent Aida, again with Williams in the title role, Robinson’s voice was consistently strong, handsome, and a joy to hear. His legato was impeccable, each note blessed with the resonance that comes when the voice is placed firmly in the mask. Of paramount importance, the fundamental humanity of his character came through. His was the one fully realized and convincing performance of the evening.

McKinney and Antipenko sang and acted quite well as Kurwenal and Melot. Andrew Stenson’s strong Sailor/Shepherd was saddled with a bit of a wobble, and Joshua Jeremiah made for a sonorous Steersman.

Jason Victor Serinus | October 17, 2022

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A production by Marcelo Lombardero (2022)