Santa Fe Opera 1: A Quiet Storm
Although the Santa Fe Opera has been going
for some sixty-five years, it was not until the present season that it gave its
first ever performance of Tristan und Isolde; before that, the only
other Wagner opera to have appeared at the festival was Der fliegende
Holländer (last performed in the 1980s, but scheduled to return next year).
The relative absence of Wagner is perhaps not surprising: the open-air
amphitheatre, which sits on the west-facing side of a hill in the majestic
wilderness of northern New Mexico, is one of the great North American opera
venues, but the fact that performances can’t begin until the sun goes down –
usually around half-past eight during the height of summer – naturally precludes
many of the longer works in the standard repertoire. Yet the presence of Tristan
in this year’s programme was most welcome, and on the evening of its first
performance the robust passions of Wagner’s score were enhanced considerably by
the well-timed additions of a passing storm.
The staging – by Zack Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón – was minimal and elegant, but occasionally too static to convey much in the way of emotional immediacy. The action took place within an axonometric set of grey walls, which could fold in and out into different configurations, and which featured a series of barely perceptible doors from which characters could make their entrances and exits; when the doors were closed, one was left with the illusion of a space differentiated primarily through the right angles of its intersecting planes. In the second act the trunk of a fallen tree brought a touch of organic form to the extended love-scene, and in the third the addition of a bed and a strange illuminated sculpture transformed the space into Tristan’s home.
If the set was agreeably neutral, evoking no particular time or place, the staging itself seemed decidedly averse to action of any kind. Although groups of sailors were made to run across the stage at various points in the first act, they could not dispel the essential stasis that emerged during the series of lengthy dialogues, which generated their drama more from the nuanced line-readings of the singers than any obvious directorial intervention. In place of strong interactions there were a series of long-term lighting effects – notably the almost imperceptible shadow that crept up the back walls during the length of Tristan’s visit to Isolde – which were conceptually intriguing but perhaps too subtle for their own good.
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Zack Winokur y Lisenka Heijboer Castañón, directors. James Gaffigan, conductor. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2022. © 2022 by Curtis Brown / Santa Fe Opera.
Indeed it often seemed that the staging wanted to use deliberate movement and extreme stillness to create an hypnotic visual experience, but didn’t quite have the conviction to go through with it. There was something fitting about Tristan and Isolde lying nearly immobile during the languid central section of their second act scene, but their other encounters were meandering and bereft of spark: the unrestrained passions of Wagner’s score have rarely seemed so tentative. Nor did the staging’s penchant for uninflected scenes impart much universality (or depth) to the story and its characters: beneath the static tableaux one struggled to find symbolic meaning, a presiding argument, or anything as definite as a gloss on the libretto.
Fortunately nature itself filled in a few of the gaps. Isolde’s expressions of foreboding and despair at the beginning of the first act were mirrored by distant lightning to the north, while the shepherd’s lament in the prelude to Act Three was underscored by low rumbles of thunder. The elemental enhancements were at their most pronounced in the second act, in which the prelude was accompanied by the sound of light rain, soon replaced by a fearsome wind that made Isolde’s gown billow in anticipation of Tristan’s arrival; the storm seemed to subside during the love scene, but it returned along with King Marke at the end. While the involvement of nature at an outdoor venue can never be planned, on this evening it proved especially fortuitous.
Jamie Barton (Brangäne) and Tamara Wilson (Isolde). Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Zack Winokur y Lisenka Heijboer Castañón, directors. James Gaffigan, conductor. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2022. © 2022 by Curtis Brown / Santa Fe Opera.
If the staging went out of its way to avoid physical displays of emotion, Tamara Wilson’s subtly expressive delivery ensured that Isolde’s scenes were never lacking in dramatic spirit. Her narration of Morold’s death and Tristan’s disguised visit in the first act was consistently engaging, brisk enough to cohere as exposition but detailed enough to delineate a credible progression from anger to pity to shame. There were a few moments when the understatement of the staging seemed at odds with Ms Wilson’s reading – notably the opening of the second act, in which Isolde’s heightened anticipation was nearly effaced by a lack of meaningful stage movement – but the frequent stillness allowed Ms Wilson the luxury to craft beautiful contributions to the love scene and deliver a captivating Liebestod.
Throughout the evening Simon O’Neill’s Tristan remained far more reticent, although it was often difficult to determine how much this was simply a result of the staging. He seemed oddly untroubled by Isolde’s request for an audience in the first act, and when they did finally meet he was curiously passive, as though unaware of their prior encounters; after he had consumed the potion it was difficult to tell if it had worked. Yet his indifferent demeanour was often contradicted by moments of vocal inspiration: the ‘O sink hernieder’ section of the central duet captured the scene’s languid nocturnal mood, while his measured ‘So starben wir’ conveyed its own subtle ardour. By the third act he sounded wholly invested, shuttling back and forth between delirium and lucidity with impressive conviction; his voice seemed to gain in colour and depth during his evocation of eternal night.
Jamie Barton (Brangäne), Nicholas Brownlee (Kurwenal), Simon O'Neill (Tristan). Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Zack Winokur y Lisenka Heijboer Castañón, directors. James Gaffigan, conductor. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2022. © 2022 by Curtis Brown / Santa Fe Opera.
As Brangäne, Jamie Barton sounded a touch underpowered in her earliest appearances, but her animated readings were consistently alert to the dramatic potential in the text; in the first act her hints of irony provided a welcome counterpoint to Isolde’s despair, her intermittent spectral appearances in the second act were magnificent, and in her final lines of the third act she offered an unusually convincing admission of her role in the tragedy.
Nicholas Brownlee’s Kurwenal, if not always subtle, had a remarkably powerful voice; the arrogance in his first-act reply to Brangäne was perhaps overstated, but his excitable laments for Tristan in the third act were alive with emotion.
The role of King Marke was ideally suited to the vocal strengths of Eric Owens, whose feel for the gravity of the story often transcended the limitations of the staging: in his commanding appearance at the end of the second act he traced a grand arc from sadness to disappointment while retaining his nobility of bearing and warmth of tone.
Conductor James Gaffigan led the orchestra through a graceful reading that alternated passages of brisk motivation and sections of contemplative detail without losing the thread of the drama. If there were a handful of moments in which the shifts in tempo seemed too extreme or too sudden – Kurwenal’s slowed-down response to Brangäne was followed by an unexpectedly rapid-fire continuation from the choir, and the agitated mood at the beginning of the second act was once or twice undercut by broad contrasts – Mr Gaffigan’s sense of pacing and elegant line offered a cohesive, unindulgent vision of the score.
The sound of the orchestra remained on the soft side even
in the most tempestuous passages, but the balance between sections was kept under
tight control, and there were several moments of fine solo-playing, notably the
cor anglais at the beginning of the third act. If there were parts of the
staging that seemed unengaged or wilfully underplayed, Mr Gaffigan’s long view
of the drama and ability to coax gently lustrous playing from the orchestra ensured
that that the evening was able to capture many of the emotional complexities in
Wagner’s endlessly captivating score.