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The Elixir of Love

Kennedy Center Opera House
09/15/2013 -  & September 18, 21, 24, 27, 2013
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Yuri Gorodetski (Young Sailor), Iréne Theorin (Isolde), Elizabeth Bishop (Brangäne), James Rutherford (Kurwenal), Ian Storey (Tristan), Javier Arrey (Melot), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (King Marke), Yuri Gorodetski (Shepherd), NormanGarrett (Steersman)
Washington National Opera Chorus, Steven Gathman (Chorus Master), Washington National Opera Orchestra, Philippe Auguin (Conductor)
Neil Armfield (Stage Director), Anatoly Frusin (Associate Director), Set Designs (Opera Australia), Jennie Tate (Costume Designer), Anne Ford Coates for Elsen Associates (Hair and Makeup Designer), Rory Dempster (Original Lighting Designer), Toby Sewell (Lighting Designer)

J. Rutherford, I. Theorin (© Scott Suchman)

The opening of the opera season at the Kennedy Center is always one of the grandest social events of the year in Washington, and the 2013/14 season opening was certainly no exception. The Opera House was packed with Washington’s glitterati of the rich and famous, the Capitol Hill politicians, stars of the screen and theater, as well as musicians from every fach, especially the Wagnerites, who had all assembled to see the first staging of Tristan und Isolde in well over twenty years.

There had been a great deal of furor prior to the opening performance due to the last minute cancellation of Deborah Voigt in the title role of Isolde. Those of us who have heard her performances of late at the Metropolitan Opera had pondered the wisdom of her decision to appear in this most taxing of soprano roles at this time in her career. In a press interview following her withdrawal from the production she said as much herself, revealing that she has now decided to remove the role of Isolde from her active repertoire. This is a courageous and wise decision from a truly great artist who has had a most distinguished career and continues to thrill audiences worldwide.

The internationally renowned stage director Francesca Zambello, the new Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera, who formally brings to a close the regime of Plácido Domingo and Christina Scheppelmann and opens a brand new era at the WNO, came out before the footlights and warmly greeted the audience before the curtain went up and gave a short synopsis of her plans for the opera company during her tenure and entreating the audience to come frequently and join her in her vision through the world of opera with the WNO. And then with a brisk introduction of music director Maestro Philippe Auguin, the audience stood and joined in singing a rousing rendition of the National Anthem, where after the opera began.

Let me begin this review by saying that with the exception of a few minor quibbles I had, mostly with the stage director, this was as superb a performance of Tristan as is humanly possible in the theater today. The production is distinguished by a company of the finest international Wagnerian singers, a magnificent orchestra and chorus under the baton of a superbly knowledgeable and stylish conductor, a brilliant lighting and costume design, and a great sense of ensemble among the company of artists.

The opening of the opera was completely marred for me by director Armfield’s mistaken need to find it necessary to stage the orchestral prelude. It was completely silly and useless. Wagner wrote this highly evocative, hypnotic, and inspiring music for one purpose alone. And that is for us to listen to it, and to open our minds to what is to come afterwards. Armfield’s “concept”, if one can call it that, was complete waste of time and energy. It added not one iota to the drama nor revealed anything in the play that Wagner does not already do himself. One sees more and more of this type of staging of orchestral preludes and overtures nowadays. Why pure music in drama makes stage directors uncomfortable is beyond me, they must learn that often in opera the drama is in the music alone. Wagner would be the first to say that “Music is Drama!” Let it speak for itself. Volumes have been written on the profound depths of the Vorspiel to Tristan. Neil Armfield at best managed only absurd comedy. What he needed to do was provide a regal couch for Isolde to recline on. She is an Irish Queen for heaven’s sake, even if she has been abducted. This having her rolling around on the ship’s floor was indeed ridiculous. Whatever was he thinking? It looked just as unbelievable as it was awkward and tedious. After a while I just blocked the stage direction out of my mind so I could concentrate on the things that mattered: the singing and the music.

The unquestionable star of the production was soprano Iréne Theorin. She is perhaps the finest Isolde singing on the international stages today. She possesses a brilliant and clarion voice of singular beauty, with a gleaming silver sheen and a thrust of steel. Her top notes are particularly thrilling and always on target. In many ways she recalled the heyday of her Swedish predecessor Birgit Nilsson. Theorin has more warmth to her sound than Nilsson did and her acting has more fire and passion. Having heard her previously at the WNO as Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Götterdämerung, and as Richard Strauss’s Ariadne, this was by far her finest role to date, showing a particular richness in the middle voice that was only hinted at before. She was compelling in all of her major scenes, ringing the rafters with riveting High C in her famous “Curse”!. Her rendition of the Liebestod was something of a special beauty with meltingly lovely piano notes floated against thrilling forte passages. The audience gave her an immediate standing ovation and it was a performance that was truly deserving of one. It was one of those afternoons in the theater that all who were there will certainly never forget it.

Her Tristan, tenor Ian Storey , is also a singer of great merit and distinction. He certainly has the requisite power and sound to be a true Wagnerian tenor. One of the most fascinating details of his performance was that in the last act, which is the longest and most demanding, and the act in which many tenors begin to flag, this was the act in which Mr. Storey really poured it on. He had sung with a full, robust tone throughout the afternoon, but this seemed like merely a warm-up to the way he let go in Act III. His finest talent is perhaps his ability to act with his voice. All of the drama that is inherent in Tristan’s music is completely and convincingly delivered in his singing with very moving vocal expression. Here however is a contradiction that is very difficult to accept or explain, because when it comes to Ian Storey’s stage presence and dramatic acting, he adds a whole new dimension to the term...”stiff acting”, in fact he gave ample evidence of having no acting ability whatever. You would never know this listening to him on a recording, but watching him onstage is indeed a different matter. Let us be positive however and say that his singing was dramatically, indeed, most compelling.

No complaints for the Brangäne of Elizabeth Bishop. She gave a performance that was beautifully sung and acted. Her voice is so lovely, plump, and rounded…a perfect Wagnerian mezzo. The same can be said of our baritones and basses: James Rutherford, Javier Arrey, and Wilhelm Schwinghammer. A stalwart group indeed, who breathed life convincingly into Kurwenal, Melot, and King Marke. Our tenors were also particularly fine. Norman Garrett was a hearty Steersman and Yuri Gorodetski, who was excellent as the Young Sailor, was exceptionally memorable as the Shepherd.

The sets from Opera Australia were unimaginative and may be a big part of the reason Neil Armfield’s stage direction was so dull, but a lot of magic was made onstage from Toby Sewell’s haunting and brilliant lighting. Good lighting can go a long way to bring life to a meager production, and this lighting did indeed make everything look wonderful.

Chorus Master Steven Gathman always does a superb job and he turned the WNO Chorus into a top-notch Wagnerian ensemble. The icing on the cake however was Maestro Auguin’s vision of Wagner’s monumental work. Although all of the voices were large and penetrating, one never had the feeling the orchestra ever overwhelmed them or that they had to compete with the orchestra to be heard. Maestro Auguin’s performance had a lot of nuance and magical touches. The use of the special wooden trumpet, the Holztrompete, which Wagner himself had designed for use in the scene with the shepherd, made for an especially nice and exotic moment. It was extremely effective. The orchestra under his baton was full of poetry from the first note, delicately pouring a few drops of Queen Isolde’s magic elixir into each of ears to take us on this journey of Love through Life and the Everafter.

Micaele Sparacino



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