San Francisco Opera “Tristan”: Chord Resounding

By Janos Gereben [email protected]

[Artist Photo ID's at bottom of page.]

San Francisco (10/6/06): 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 Isolda: a thrilling vocal performance of power and melting beauty. Her voice soared and caressed in turn, every note on the money, filling the house, permeating the air, seemingly lingering on and on. 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 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 roles.

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 that brought to mind Thomas Stewart and Hans Hotter. Beyond its enormous musical value, Sigmundsson's performance also brought 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, in 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 Brangäne was consistently excellent, peaking in her crucial Act 2 scene; her warning to the lovers was intense, portentous, and filling the stage powerfully. Another US debut, that of Israeli baritone Boaz Daniel as Kurwenal, was impressive. Among Opera Center participants, Sean Panikkar excelled as the Sailor in the opening scene, and the Act 3 Shepherd.

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.

1. Christine Brewer (Isolde), Thomas Moser (Tristan), Boaz Daniel (Kurwenal), and Jane Irwin (Brangäne) in SFO "Tristan und Isolde." Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

2. Christine Brewer (Isolde) and Thomas Moser (Tristan). Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

3. Jane Irwin (Brangäne). Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

4. Thomas Moser (Tristan) and Kristinn Sigmundsson (King Marke). Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Leave a Comment