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Santa Fe Opera Review: Tristan Triumphs

With its first Fidelio, in 2014, the Santa Fe Opera filled a repertory gap that had puzzled many admirers: Why had this estimable company waited so long to tackle Beehoven’s only opera? Now, eight years later, the SFO has corrected a lapse that made fans not just curious, but nervous: late Wagner. Only one Wagner opera ever took the SFO stage before this season: The Flying Dutchman, last seen here in 1988, and Dutchman barely even hints at the musical innovations that made Wagner revolutionary. No fully serious opera company — and they don’t come more serious than the SFO — can omit late Wagner from the canon.
Curtis Brown/Santa Fe Opera

True, mounting a full Ring cycle or Meistersinger might not be the right choice for a summer festival whose backstage areas don’t have fly systems. But Tristan’s production demands don’t require epic scenery. Its cast is small, and surprisingly, it’s not hugely scored — at least, not by Wagnerian standards (73 instruments). There’s little in the way of dramatic complexity for a director to worry about; most of the action occurs inside characters’ minds, and they declaim it at length. But the music! To Wagner’s contemporaries it was like nothing that had ever been heard before; the drama, too, was shocking in its untraditional reworking of traditional literature melded with Wagner’s highly personal take on Schopenhauerian philosophy. This is foundational work that exerted a transformational effect not just on opera, but on all of Western art. To get it onto the boards poses a challenge for any company.

Beyond meeting Wagner’s grueling stylistic demands, there are the practical difficulties of putting on a show that typically lasts about five hours. The main challenge, of course, is casting. In terms of their vocal demands, Wagner operas are a category unto themselves, and the roles of Tristan and Isolde are long and strenuously, intensely emotional (read: ‘loud’). For both principals, there are frequent stretches of cruelly high singing that are unusual in Wagner. Small wonder that fans of this opera are continually on the lookout for its next great interpreters; at any given moment, there are simply not enough of them to go around.
For orchestral players and conductors, Wagner’s late operas are a week’s worth of hard work in one night. Not just accompanists, the instrumentalists are, in a sense, actors — full participants in every moment of the staged drama. Like actors, if they are not “speaking,” they are actively listening. Keeping all this together, the conductor must sustain a uniformly high level of control and pacing over an unusually long arc, bringing out the inner architecture of Wagner’s motivic writing without getting too obvious about it. And while keeping this big ship on course, the conductor must also protect the singers — listening to them, at times even breathing with them, subtly adjusting as needed.
The SFO’s Tristan proved so successful that one might well wonder why anyone was worried. It is fresh, blessedly free of gimmickry, and musically realized at a consistently high level. The orchestra, admired for its way with Richard Strauss operas, plays confidently under the direction of James Gaffigan, with whom they played Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos four years ago. Vocally, the biggest news in a triumphant production is the Isolde of American soprano Tamara Wilson, her debut in the role. Hers is a voice that can thrill — a gleaming-sword voice that loves to soar and flash, bright yet with plenty of dramatic heft and with an edge that can cut effortlessly through an orchestra. Her top notes are unstrained and brilliant; her vocal reserves handled every fortissimo with power to spare. Where some sopranos worry about the stamina this role calls for, Wilson sounded, if anything fresher in Act III than in Act I. Wilson is a remarkably young Isolde — this is a role that even experienced Wagner heroines usually “age into” — and it seems likely that her interpretation will deepen with experience. “Deepen” may also be the word for her voice; her lowest notes were the only ones that sometimes got lost behind the orchestra, but these typically acquire fullness and warmth over time.
Wilson’s Tristan is Simon O’Neill, who hails from New Zealand and has sung Parsifal and Siegmund in Germany and France, but is new to American audiences. Heldentenors are even rarer than Wagnerian sopranos, and O’Neill is the real deal: his voice is big with plenty of metal, and while some listeners on July 27 felt it lacked warmth and fullness, it has an undeniably heroic ring. And like his Isolde, O’Neill demonstrated impressive stamina, especially in his difficult third act — when Tristan dies agonizingly, at great length.
In the roles of Brangäne and King Marke, the SFO gave us not just luxury casting, but dream casting: Jamie Barton and Eric Owens, both at the peak of their powers. It’s tempting to say their performances were “beyond praise” — no performance is really beyond praise, but that phrase gets the critic off the hook. Barton can do no wrong lately; she almost stole the show as Princess Eboli in the Met’s recent, starry Don Carlos, and here she matched Wilson’s power and luster while creating a nearly likable Brangäne. As for the magnificent Eric Owens, he is, of course, one of his generation’s most gifted Wagnerian bassos, with a wonderfully rich voice. No one is better at finding and projecting the nobility and dignity of the characters he portrays; this was equally true of his Porgy and his King Marke, two roles that could hardly be more different. With the exception of Kurvenal, excellently and ardently sung by the rich-voiced Nicholas Brownlee, Marke is the only character who earns our sympathy in Tristan. When portrayed by Owens, we weep for him.
Describing the design and direction of a production of Tristan amounts to argument-baiting. Operahound did a photo-search of past productions expecting to find minimalistic, austere stage sets predominating; instead, there were lots of ornate castles and ships. One brilliant and influential design, by the architectural firm of Herzog and de Meuron for the German State Opera in 2006, evoked the Act I shipboard so vividly that the audience saw lines and sails billowing through seaborne mist. In this production, also by an architectural firm, the nearly featureless unit set consists of moveable, fenestrated panels that can modulate spaces small or large, indoors or out, all looking pretty much the same. And that may well be the point: in Tristan und Isolde, the real world of color and feeling is the world inside the protagonists’ heads. It is the world of night and desire — not the outside world of daylight and waking reality. If there’s nothing onstage to suggest that Act I takes place on board ship, or Act III in Tristan’s castle, that may not matter to them. But it matters to some of us.
Further performances are on August 5, 11, 19 and 23. Santafeopera.org.
— Michael Clive