In the standing room area, where the Opera House's true cognoscenti
congregate, there was a uniformly happy buzz in the first intermission.
Almost uniformly. One well-known veteran fan looked pensive. As excited
standees shouted "Isn't this fantastic?" at her, she responded with a
sad sigh: "Yes, but where do they go from here?"
It's too bad when someone is looking for a worm in a big, beautiful
apple, but the inappropiate - and eventually unjustified - pessimism
was wonderfully telling: it was difficult to imagine how the singers
and the orchestra could do justice to the work's evening-long crescendo
after such concentration of intensity and excellence in the first act.
In the event, they did.
In an extraordinary local premiere of the David Hockney production
of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" from Los Angeles, the San Francisco
Opera did itself proud Thursday night. A world-class first act, a
beautifully-sung second act, and a sustained third act added up to an
evening of joy and enchantment, good feelings tempered by the fact that
attendance was poor, the orchestra level perhaps one-third empty.
The evening's glory was Christine Brewer's stage debut as Isolde: a
thrilling vocal performance of power and melting beauty. Her voice
soared and caressed in turn, leading the musical forces, astonishing
the audience, filling the house. Brewer has confirmed convincingly
her place among the best Wagnerian sopranos of the day.
The engine and backbone of the production was Donald Runnicles' orchestra,
in a performance on par with the best of my 30-year experience in the
house. There were two components to this orchestral feast: interpretation
and execution. The former is easy to explain, devilishly difficult to
do - letting Wagner speak for himself, not pushing or punching up, not
helping or manipulating. The required "Langsam und schmachtend" (slowly
and languishing) was just that, but not by rote, not in a mechanical
way, the music flowing naturally, with shimmering beauty.
Runnicles' Wagner this evening was among his very best, a rock-solid,
impossibly intricate, consistent, self-confident and self-effacing musical
leadership, honoring the composer and supporting the singers. The second
component, execution, is impossible to explain; in a mysterious way, the
orchestra sounded as a single instrument all night long, instruments
merging, uniting, becoming one. This was true in all three acts: brilliant
in the first, "one long song" in the second, and restrained just right
at the end to allow Thomas Moser's fine, but occasionally underpowered
Tristan to come through.
Most of Moser's performance sounded like a high baritone, top notes
involved some squeezing, but it was all reliable and musical light years
away from his unfortunate Florestan here last time, more reminiscent of
his previous, appealing appearances in "Peter Grimes" and "Ariadne auf
After the stunning first act, the extended love duet of the second
act was sung well, but a missing component didn't become obvious until
the appearance of Kristinn Sigmundsson, who sang a King Marke whose
musical-drama totality brought to mind the great Hans Hotter himself.
Beyond its enormous musical value, Sigmundsson's performance also added
an element of believability to the production: this, indeed, was a mighty
ruler brought low by betrayal and the resulting pain. In an unintended
way, Sigmundsson showed up the others, even the vocally superb Brewer,
for their relative lack of emotional credibility. After Marke's aria,
both Brewer and Moser went up another significant notch in authenticity.
Scottish mezzo Jane Irwin's US debut as Brangane was consistently
excellent, peaking in her crucial Act 2 scene; her warning to the lovers
was intense, portentous, and filling the stage powerfully. Tristan and
Isolde on stage, the orchestra below, Irwin's Brangane above the formed
a sphere, a whole, a musical-dramatic-emotional gestalt. Another U.S.
debut, that of Israeli baritone Boaz Daniel as Kurwenal, was impressive
in voice, musicality, presence. Among Opera Center participants, Sean
Panikkar excelled as the Sailor in the opening scene, and the Act 3
The Hockney production is notable for its wild colors and beautiful
costumes, but it has some serious deficits. The steeply raked stage
is an obstacle course for the singers (especially the large principals),
and the lollipop trees of Act 2 make little sense. However, against the
frequently divine musical performance tonight, not much mattered. The
answer to philistine preoccupation with singers' size or (heroically
well-managed) difficulty in walking is that it's up to you where you
focus your attention, if you allow a magnificent gestalt overshadow or
just obviate details. As soon as Brewer started singing, her size or
walking became as immaterial as Thomas Quasthoff's four-foot height when
he sings. It's a good thing that Runnicles' achievement was recognized
by all, even if his hair wasn't perfectly in place.
Stage director Thor Steingraber did his best with what is essentially a
physically static opera of extreme inner turmoil. Having Isolde throw
her bridal veil on the ground at the end of Act 1 might have been
questionable, but other gestures and restrained but expressive body
language were on the mark.
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