It has been a few years now since Seattle Opera presented a Wagner opera. The company’s current production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde firmly re-establishes it as one of North America’s premiere Wagner capitals. For me, the performance was an overwhelmingly moving theatrical, musical and emotional experience.
Heidi Melton (Isolde) and Amber Wagner (Bragane) were well-matched in dramatic qualities and beauty of their voices. Melton had, in recent years, sang and recorded Sieglinde in the composer’s Die Walkure and Brunnhilde in Siegfried, with Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic as part of their outstanding of Ring Cycle recording. Vocally theirs were the highlights of yesterday’s performance. Amber Wagner’s voice is truly something to behold. She has the power to sail through the orchestral texture, but at the same time never losing the velvety beauty of the quality of her voice. Melton’s voice also possesses great beauty, but also a dramatic quality that matches the text and context.
Stefan Vinke’s Tristan does not quite possess the beauty of Ben Hepner (Seattle’s last Tristan) or the dramatic declamatory qualities of Jon Vickers. Nevertheless, his voice much improved in the second and third acts, and in the end successfully conveyed the tortured passions of the tragic character.
Morris Robinson had a commanding dramatic as well as vocal presence, and portrayed a most dignified, human and sympathetic King Marke.
The supporting roles in the opera also had uniformly strong voices. Ryan McKinny was convincing as Kurwenal, in his youthful passion and complete devotion to his master. Andrew Stenson (Sailor/Shepherd), Viktor Antipenko (Melot) and Joshua Jeremiah (Steersman) all contributed to make this a truly uniformly strong cast.
As with any Wagner, the orchestra plays a vital role in any presentation of this Gesamtkunstwerk. Members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra shone with their magnificent playing yesterday. Principal oboe Mary Lynch Vanderkolk, bass clarinetist Eric Jacobs and of course Stefan Farkas playing the English horn, were outstanding in the beauty of their individual sounds as well as how they blended with the orchestral fabric.
I was bowled over by Canadian conductor Jordan De Souza’s control of the orchestra and singers, as well as his passionate conductor of the complex score, while maintaining the flow of the music and imparting great tension into the orchestral sound. According to his biography, he has already conducted in Bayreuth, the Wagner capital of the world. Certainly, a young conductor to watch. If yesterday’s performance was any indication, I am certain that we will be seeing great things from this hugely talented young man.
The remarkable stage design truly deserves special mention. Using digital projection onto a scrim in front of the singers as well as on the backdrop, set and video designer Diego Siliano and video animator Luciana Gutman created real stage magic in all three acts – from the bowels of the ship in Act One, to the love scene in Act Two, where Isolde’s bedchamber surrounded by the forest transformed into a full backdrop of the constellation in the climax, to the black and white, bleak and desolate landscape of Act Three – I would boldly say that this current set design is as ground-breaking as Wieland Wagner’s “painting with light” productions were in post-war Bayreuth. In yesterday’s production, the transformations of the backdrops created a synergistic effect with the music, which I found to be emotionally overwhelming.
I am gratified and thankful that in this current production, the director and set designers did not use Wagner to further their own political ideologies, as we so often see in European productions. I am so glad to see Wagner back in Seattle Opera’s repertory again. Buy a ticket and run to see this production. I can safely say that it will be nothing like you have seen or heard before.