‘Tristan’ Redux: Melding Images From Mythology With Fantasy Comics

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Amber Wagner as Brangäne and Mary Elizabeth Williams as Isolde in the Seattle Opera production of Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde.’ (Photos by Sunny Martini)

SEATTLE — Seattle Opera acquitted itself quite well Oct. 15 with its first production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde since 2013. The production, which continues through Oct. 29 (with Heidi Melton replacing Mary Elizabeth Williams as Isolde on Oct. 23), was especially notable for its role and company debuts: the first Isolde from company favorite Williams and first Seattle Opera appearances by Amber Wagner (Brangäne), Viktor Antipenko (Melot), Joshua Jeremiah (Steersman), Jordan de Souza (conductor), and everyone associated with debuting stage director Marcelo Lombardero’s remarkably effective production.

With set and video design by Diego Siliano, ideal lighting by Horacio Efron, costumes by Luciana Gutman, and video animation by Matías Otálora, the production was originally created for Teatro Argentino de la Plata outside Buenos Aires. As much as Lombardero may claim inspiration from fantasy comic books, much of what we see projected onto a scrim and a screen at the stage’s rear combines repeat loops of ocean waves and stormy seas with symbolism from the Middle Ages and the Romantic era. At times, scenes resemble images from German mythology and Wagnerian opera found on the walls of the castle in which Wagner’s major sponsor, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was raised.

Stefan Vinke as Tristan.

Through its reliance on various shades of white, black, and gray, the scenery effectively communicates the bleakness of a philosophy in which love and deliverance can only be realized through death. When color appears, as in Isolde’s rich purple and Brangäne’s rich blue-green gown and robes, it stands in sharp contrast to the grimness of the lovers’ fate and the rugged coastlines of Cornwall and Brittany. But when the mood turns to hope and love, the sky glows blue or becomes filled with twinkling stars.

At other times, the stage was framed, as though looking at a play within a play. Especially effective were those moments when the production highlighted emotional and metaphysical transformation, such as the first effects of the love potion or the suggested tryst between fully clothed lovers, by elevating and separating Tristan and Isolde from the rest of the action. I’m not going to give it all away, but it’s quite powerful, especially in the marvelously realized “Liebestod.” Less effective were the cartoonish appearance of the offstage Sailor, which served no artistic purpose, and the abrupt bump as the sea video reached its end and looped back again during exposed vocal solos.

De Souza’s conducting was puzzling. Accustomed as I am to the strength with which Donald Runnicles approaches Wagner, I wasn’t prepared for an orchestra that, even in the Prelude and other solo passages, only occasionally rose to forte. Rarely did we hear great percussive force or find ourselves carried away by the irresistible sweep of the music.

Morris Robinson as King Marke.

As for the singing, the distinction between the classical Wagnerian midrange bloom, body, and heft of Amber Wagner’s beautifully vocalized Brangäne and the strong but fundamentally lyrical voice of Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Isolde did not make for an ideal blend. De Souza wisely compensated by restraining the orchestra much of the time. The beauty of Williams’ voice was most prominent when she floated notes in her upper midrange, but the role seemed to afford too few opportunities to do so. In contrast to her servant’s strength and ease, Williams often sounded like a soprano working hard to hold her lines together. Far too many notes were approached from an octave below, and far too many phrases sounded choppy. Every note was there — only one was shouted — but it seemed very much a performance in the making or an assumption best visited infrequently.

As Tristan, Stefan Vinke displayed the clarion steel of a Wagnerian heldentenor. Consistent beauty of timbre and legato, however, took a back seat to might. Most uncomfortable was the start of the love scene with Isolde, where each artist sounded so determined to punch out their notes that harmony was non-existent. Only when the music softened and grew more lyrical in nature did it seem as though the two were listening and tuning to each other.

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Isolde and Stefan Vinke as Tristan.

It was in his final scene that Vinke rose to the occasion. His delirium seemed real, and his highs cut through the air with determination and fortitude. But perhaps due to the conducting, much of the final act seemed overly long and lacking in urgency.

Williams and De Souza saved their best for last. The “Liebestod,” sung at a pace that far more resembled Lotte Lehmann’s famed 1930 recording than the slow-slower-slowest tempos favored by some recent Isoldes, was strong, beautifully vocalized, rapturous, and transcendent. It seemed the one place where the soprano relaxed, trusted, and let be. De Souza was with her every step of the way.

In contrast, the late-opera appearance of Morris Robinson (King Marke) provided true deliverance. As in Cincinnati Opera’s recent Aida, again with Williams in the title role, Robinson’s voice was consistently strong, handsome, and a joy to hear. His legato was impeccable, each note blessed with the resonance that comes when the voice is placed firmly in the mask. Of paramount importance, the fundamental humanity of his character came through. His was the one fully realized and convincing performance of the evening.

McKinney and Antipenko sang and acted quite well as Kurwenal and Melot. Andrew Stenson’s strong Sailor/Shepherd was saddled with a bit of a wobble, and Joshua Jeremiah made for a sonorous Steersman.