By Daniel Hathaway
CLEVELAND – The Cleveland Orchestra is capping off its centennial season with two festivals. First was “The Ecstasy of Tristan and Isolde,” an ambitious set of performances culminating in Severance Hall on April 29 with the third performance of what Wagner called not an opera but eine Handlung. The festival’s itinerary also included a one-off performance of Messiaen’s transcendent Turangalîla-Symphonie and a concert titled “Divine Ecstasy,” a gathering of works that translate the notion of love-intoxication into the spiritual realm.
The second festival is a cycle of all the Beethoven symphonies under the banner of “The Prometheus Project,” celebrating the ensemble’s spécialité de la maison, to be presented in Cleveland from May 10-19 before the orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst tour the programs to Vienna and Tokyo.
The first festival owed its philosophical underpinning to Welser-Möst, who has written that once Tristan and Isolde was logged into the 100th Anniversary calendar — a longtime dream of his — he became excited to contemplate other music that embraces religious or personal ecstasy. “I think for many people, musical performances are often a channel to understanding and transcendence, of being more than yourself and at peace. And so I worked to develop a festival around the opera,” he noted in a program book article.
The orchestra gave Messiaen’s ten-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie an electrifying performance on April 25. Written just after World War II, Messiaen’s treatise on ecstatic, transforming love was conceived while he was studying the Tristan and Isolde legend. Welser-Möst drew dazzling, transparent sounds from the large ensemble, abetted by flawless virtuosity from pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and swooping commentary from ondes martenot soloist Cynthia Millar. The large percussion section ratcheted up the excitement with ebullient mallet work, bells, and chimes.
On April 28, the orchestra’s brass section joined the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and organist Paul Jacobs in Venetian ceremonial music by the Gabrielis led by assistant conductor Vinay Parameswaran. Lisa Wong conducted unaccompanied choral pieces — Arvo Pärt’s haunting Magnificat and a movement from Aaron Jay Kernis’ Ecstatic Meditations — and Welser-Möst led the expressive countertenor Iestyn Davies and a small orchestra in J.S. Bach’s cantata Vergnügte Ruh with organ obbligato by Jacobs. The organist finished off the evening with perhaps the most lucid reading you’ll ever hear of Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on Giacomo Meyerbeer’s chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.”
On the afternoon of April 29, a capacity audience settled into Severance Hall for the main event — a concert performance of Wagner’s four-hour-long Tristan und Isolde, sung in German by a distinguished cast headed up by soprano Nina Stemme and tenor Gerhard Siegel.
The stage served as the orchestra pit, while the singers performed from an elevated platform, making their entrances and exits through the center panel of the organ façade (pipes removed).
With the cast in concert dress, no scenery, no props, and only chairs and music stands for furniture, this Tristan performance resembled a Sitzprobe — that intermediate phase in opera production where the whole focus is on the music — except for some minimal, seemingly improvised acting.
Minus theatrical distractions, Welser-Möst and the orchestra were free to put Wagner’s musical innovations across in bold relief, beginning with the famous opening gesture that resolves one unstable chord by moving into another — the seed of an idea that permeates the opera and acts as a metaphor for yearning and desire.
Uninhibited by a pit, the orchestra could be heard in all of its tonal glory during a score that scarcely stops to breathe, and most of the lead singers had the physical wherewithal to project over the loudest orchestral tuttis.
Stemme brought alluring power to the role of Isolde. Siegel was a stentorian Tristan, indefatigable even in the daunting third act, although pitch sometimes sagged in his middle register.
The radiant mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau was not only Isolde’s handmaiden but her perfect vocal match. Bass-baritone Alan Held was a commanding Kurwenal and bass Ain Anger an arresting King Marke. Baritone Sean Michael Plumb (Melot), tenor Matthew Plenk (Shepherd), and baritone Francisco X. Prado (Steersmen) assumed their smaller parts with authority.
Mostly unseen, the men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus brought sailors, knights, attendants, and soldiers to life, coming onstage to join brass — stationed in the dress circle — for a thrilling surround-sound effect at the end of Act 1. Later, in Act 3, superbly played offstage solos by English horn (guest Russ deLuna) and trumpet (Michael Sachs) brought a bit of theatricality to the proceedings.
Welser-Möst and the orchestra proved to be musical marathoners on Sunday afternoon, still generating energy at the end of this lengthy show — probably well beyond the point when listeners’ ears began to fatigue. But like challenging foot races, Tristan and Isolde isn’t an everyday experience. This was a priceless opportunity to experience the piece under optimal musical circumstances. And the application of a magical, plot-bending love potion offered a welcome change from the Real World, where nerve agents get planted on door knobs in Salisbury.
The Cleveland Orchestra’s season continues with the “Prometheus Project,” May 10-19. For tickets, go here.
Daniel Hathaway is founder and editor of ClevelandClassical.com.