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Goerke’s First Isolde

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
11/13/2019 -  & November 15 (Washington), 17 (New York), 2019
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Act II)
Christine Goerke (Isolde), Stephen Gould (Tristan), Ekaterina Gubanova (Brangäne), Günther Groissböck (King Marke), Neal Cooper (Melot), Hunter Enoch (Kurwenal)
National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)

C. Goerke

Opera in concert can be a hit-or-miss affair. Can it work without sets and costumes? Or does it work better without them? Is the format amenable to Wagner’s long acts? In this stunning National Symphony (NSO) concert, presented twice at home in the Concert Hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and once on tour in New York, the second act of Wagner’s epic portrayal of impossible love proved a resounding success.

Hearing the second act of Tristan und Isolde afresh, without the titanic musical challenges and massive emotional drain of the opera’s first act, allows for a rare and refreshing opportunity to appreciate the work without pacing. The raw energy was palpable, and under the baton of its talented new music director Gianandrea Noseda, a relative neophyte to Wagner who already has an ambitious Ring Cycle planned elsewhere, the NSO delivered some of its finest and most focused playing in years.

The concert’s greatest draw was the rising star soprano Christine Goerke’s North American debut singing Isolde. She has yet to perform in a fully staged production, and has only touched the part’s music once before, in a Swiss concert earlier this year. The trajectory is a bit unusual, since she has already performed all three Brünnhilde roles in Wagner’s Ring, while other sopranos have only come to Brünnhilde after Isolde. In this case it was an intelligent choice. Goerke’s radiant Brünnhilde presented a superb, dark-toned middle and lower register that came into full bodied use as Isolde navigates her emotional vicissitudes. A shimmering silvery sound accompanied every note gracefully, with ascents that suffered from not a hint of strain. It was a promising performance that portends a continuing career in which Isolde could easily become a signature role.

Goerke’s performance overwhelmed the buzz of anticipation, the audience’s reception, and all critical commentary, but it would be a disservice to this superb occasion to neglect her colleagues, all of whom were making their NSO debuts. Stephen Gould is a practiced Tristan, a stentorian tenor who has enlivened the role throughout Europe, including Germany’s best theaters. His performance was yearning and ardent, accessing depths of feeling that sent the staid Washington audience into transports. Günther Groissböck has become the world’s leading Wagnerian bass and sang a strong but plaintive Marke. He resisted the temptation to wallow in self-pity in his short scene of betrayal, but rather drew on the character’s innate wisdom to ponder his plight with a sympathetically philosophical approach. Ekaterina Gubanova sang a fine Brangäne.

The performance of November 15 was broadcast over various internet links, including the NSO’s Facebook page.

Paul du Quenoy



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