Wagner Notes

Harlow Robinson
October 2022

The majestic natural setting of the Santa Fe Opera structure–open on the sides and stage to fresh air and awe-inspiring views of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains at the breathtaking elevation of 7000 feet–would seem to be a perfect place to stage Wagner’s operas, where the wonders of the natural world (floods, fire, forest, mountain peaks) often play such an important role. And yet this summer’s new Tristan and Isolde is the first production of a Wagner opera here since a Flying Dutchman in the 1988 season, more than 30 years ago.

It was definitely worth the wait. Mounted by Zack Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón, both making their auspicious directorial debuts at Santa Fe, this is a vocally thrilling (for the most part) Tristan in film noir style.  Music and action unfold amidst an abstract realm of light and shadow that convey the gradual changes in the emotions of the principal characters as they make their long physical and spiritual journey from Ireland to Cornwall to Brittany, from love to death. Winokur, co-artistic director of the convention-bending American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), is a dancer and choreographer, so movement is a dominant feature of the production, especially in Act III, when the gravely wounded Tristan sees, in his delirium, a procession of ghostly images of his beloved Isolde before she finally arrives. The Dutch-Peruvian Castañón, a young rising star in the opera world, especially in Europe, approaches music “as a tool for storytelling and community-building with a strong instinct for physical theatre.”

Although two of Tristan’s three acts involve long voyages by ship, no ocean or boats are to be found here. The sets by the LA-based team of Charlap Hyman & Herrero consist of enormous gray panels that are be shifted into various geometric configurations. They serve primarily as a screen for the subtle range of lighting effects designed by John Torres. Perhaps the most effective moment comes in Act II, when Isolde seems to be suspended in a blinding triangle of light during her ecstatic duet with Tristan. Realism is banished in favor of a world of “suspended animation” that suits the opera’s intense psychological focus on the erotic entanglements of Tristan, Isolde and King Marke, and their relationships with their trusted confidants (Brangäne, Kurwenal, and Melot). The monochrome set and limited range of color (from gray to white back to gray) became a bit wearisome over the course of four and one half hours, however. In Act II, a mysterious tree stump occupies center stage. In Act III, a lone white pillar stands to the side, an apparent suggestion of Tristan’s ruined ancestral castle.

Now for the singing. The cast included a number of distinguished Wagnerians, including Tamara Wilson (Elsa in the upcoming Lohengrin at the Met) in her Santa Fe Opera debut. Her Isolde was a triumph, an awesome display of power and tonal beauty that commanded attention from the first note to the last. A woman of impressive physical stature and poise, she dominated the stage and the drama, and frankly overshadowed (both literally and figuratively) her Tristan, sung by renowned New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill (also making his SFO debut). On the night I saw him, O’Neill seemed to lack the heroic physical swagger we expect from Tristan. He sang all the notes bravely and with sensitivity to the text, but at times struggled with pitch and volume, and his tone occasionally sounded weedy and insufficiently supported. Wilson’s steely vocal muscle dominated the proceedings; the balance between the two lovers felt more like Isolde and Tristan than Tristan and Isolde.

Baritone Nicholas Brownlee’s vocally eloquent and robust performance as Tristan’s worried and protective servant Kurwenal only strengthened this impression. Brownlee dominated all his scenes with O’Neill with a ringing true tone and dynamic physicality; perhaps the directors should have advised him to tone down the bravura just a bit.

Mezzo Jamie Barton was a perfect vocal and dramatic match for Wilson as Isolde’s loyal companion Brangäne, their scenes together sparkling with exciting vocal and dramatic energy and urgency. Both wore long plain robe-like dresses that stressed the production’s timeless atmosphere. Tristan, on the other hand, was encased in a puffy armor-like costume that seemed better suited to an alien on one of the UFOs sighted so often around the New Mexico landscape.

Eric Taylor, a company apprentice, made an appropriately menacing Melot. On the evening I attended, the role of King Marke was taken by David Leigh rather than Met veteran Eric Owens. He had the necessary physical stature and presence, but his voice lacked projection, especially in the lower range. Tenor Jonah Hoskins, another apprentice, brought a lovely lyrical approach as the Sailor who opens the opera with his melancholy song (“The wind so wild blows homeward now”). Smartly, the directors had him sing from the first row of the balcony rather than on stage, creating a sense of expanded inclusive space in the large auditorium. Apprentices Dylan M. Davis (as the Shepherd) and Erick Grendahl (as the Steersman) made solid impressions.

Under James Gaffigan, the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra turned in an impassioned and sensitive performance. The string tone was not as luscious and creamy as one might have desired, but there was outstanding solo work from various players, especially Julia DeRosa, whose tender English horn solos in Act III brought me to the edge of tears. The orchestra accompanied the singers with fine sensitivity; the final scenes of Act III, particularly Isolde’s Liebestod, found a perfect balance and sympathy.

At the end of the long evening, after Tristan’s death, and after Isolde’s love ecstasy had run its divine course, Isolde walked very slowly towards the back of the stage as the panels finally opened wide to reveal the dark starry splendor of the New Mexico midnight sky, stretching into infinity. In a flowing white robe, she merged with that void, transported into reunion with her lover, as the orchestra at last reached the welcome B-major chord that resolves the unsettling harmonic ambiguity of the “Tristan chord” which has been haunting us throughout the evening.

Happily, Santa Fe Opera audiences will not have to wait another 33 years after this ambitious and thoughtful Tristan for Wagner to return. The Flying Dutchman will arrive next year in 2023, the company’s 66th season.

Photos: Curtis Brown, Santa Fe Opera

© Wagner Notes, October 2022, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Harlow Robinson,

a WSNY member, is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University, and the author of Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and other books. He has written on a wide variety of musical topics for national publications and the Metropolitan Opera, and he has lectured for the WSNY and the Metropolitan Opera Guild.