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Rough Going for San Francisco's Tristan und Isolde

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
10/10/1998 -  and 14*, 18, 21, 26, 30 October, 6 November 1998
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Elizabeth Connell (Isolde), Wolfgang Schmidt (Tristan), Violeta Urmana (Brangane), Tom Fox (Kurwenal), Victor von Halem (King Marke), John Robert Autry (Melot), Norman Shankle (Sailor), Richard Walker (Shepard), Jere Torkelsen (Steersman)
Orchestra and Chorus of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles (Conductor)
Michael Hampe (Director)

Despite Wagner’s belief that he had written a work that would be easily produced by opera houses large and small because of the small cast and simple scenic requirements, Tristan und Isolde remains one of the most challenging works in the repertory. One can only wonder what must be going through the minds of the powers that be at the San Francisco Opera when they realized what sort of a Tristan und Isolde this season's would turn out to be.

The San Francisco Opera has had a rough time with this work in recent decades and this time around no less so. It may have been to the benefit of the production when, with less than two weeks before the opening, Elizabeth Connell was brought in to replace the originally announced Karen Huffstodt. Connell has a lot to bring to the role of Isolde, a warm, feminine tone, a bright, powerful top, an attention to textual coloration and a commanding presence. Whether unleashing fury, heaping scorn or uttering endearments, Connell combined the right color and diction with her singing to reveal the depths of Isolde’s soul. The weak link is her lower register, which lacks the ideal strength and power for the low-lying passages.

Connell was in particularly good form for the first act narrative and curse, totally involved and involving, pouring forth a steady stream of sumptuous tone within a wide range of dynamic shadings. Connell was also impressive in the second act, though she sang with a little less abandon and fervor. And unfortunately, but the time the Liebestod came round at the end of the opera, she had tired noticeably. The ending was adequate, but not the ethereal transfiguration it should be. The tone less full, the top less easily produced and the phrasing less graceful, Connell still has a way to go in learning to pace herself to last for the entire role.

The opera was less successful in its other title protagonist, Tristan. Tenor Wolfgang Schmidt seems to have taken to heart Anna Russell’s dictum about dramatic sopranos - that one need not have the qualities of a singer so much as those of a buzz saw with a good cutting edge. Schmidt does indeed have a good cutting edge to his voice and it powers over the orchestra with relentless force through much of his performance. But there is no core of tone as a foundation and the result is a harsh unpleasant sound much of the time. There are moments when he seems to hook into the tone and produces a likable sound, as if he is remembering a vocal technique mostly abandoned. Likewise, there were moments when he seemed suddenly committed to what he was singing and the text and music worked together. But much of the time in both the second and third acts, he appeared to be uninvolved. At such times, not only the diction collapsed in a muddle, but the pitch, already unreliable, became a blur of approximations.

The opera’s third protagonist, and perhaps for some the main protagonist, is the orchestra. And once again San Francisco is fortunate to have a conductor of Maestro Donald Runnicles' stature on the podium. Without glossing over details, he lead a firmly propulsive performance that sustained the urgency and fervency of the lovers’ passion, relaxing for the opera’s lyric outpourings but then surging forward again with renewed purpose and intent. Runnicles unleashed a wall of sound from the pit allowing one to revel in Wagner’s lush score, but often to the singer's detriment. While neither Connell nor Schmidt seemed to be overwhelmed by the challenge, both were pushed to their limits to ride the crest of the soundwave Runnicles elicited from the pit.

Making an impressive debut, Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Violeta Urmana was a compassionate Brangane with an opulent tone and easy stage presence. Her warm mezzo seemed effortlessly produced and easily projected throughout the range and her tender, caring attention to Isolde clearly established the character.

As Tristan’s faithful retainer, Kurwenal, baritone Tom Fox displayed a full, pleasant baritone capable of sufficient heft and clarity for the dramatic passages and pliancy and tenderness to convey his loving concern for Tristan. Fox appears stiff and uncomfortable on stage, but it doesn’t impede his vocal production.

Victor von Halem’s Marke is a king of stature and nobility, integrity and compassion. Von Halem’s conveys his characterization and concept of the king in big round tones that sound rich but lacked steadiness and focus.

John Autry as Melot, Norman Shankle as the sailor and Jere Torkelsen as the Helmsman were all a credit to the production and the company.

Mauro Pagano's production is not consistently attractive, with a particularly uninventive second act, but the first act set presents a striking image of a ship with a semicircular wall around a black, polished floor that both served to throw the sound out into the auditorium much to the singers' advantage.

Thomas J. Munn took full advantage of the opera house's new computerized lighting system for some striking effects as the interplay between night and day take on a visual reality to match the metaphysical counterpart that is integral to the world of Tristan und Isolde.

Given the scarcity of singers capable of meeting Wagner's demands in Tristan und Isolde, producing the opera is a risky venture at best. With a conductor and orchestra capable of encompassing the score and an Isolde well on her way to becoming a notable exponent of the role, the San Francisco Opera's production was worth the effort despite the regrettable Tristan.

Kelly Snyder



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