We’ve all been there. Falling for the wrong guy, the one you know will break your heart, the one who killed your last boyfriend and you are scheming to kill in a murder-suicide revenge plot, only to be foiled when your handmaiden swaps your poison for a love potion.
Don’t laugh—-love potions are a totally legit opera trope. Incidentally, how sick is it that suicide is one as well, where threatening to kill yourself is an acceptable expression of utmost love? Rather than Tristan yearning for his “endless night, sweetest night,” wouldn’t we be a little squeamish to hear emotionally unstable adolescents singing paeans to anorexia, self-mutilation, or shooting up their school? In any case, it takes a lot of hubris to write something so simultaneously absurd and morbid as Tristan and Isolde with a straight face.
That’s why God gave us Richard Wagner—-or certainly how Wagner would see it. Few people born 200 years ago continue to arouse such controversy. For his haters, he was a histrionic blowhard whose proto-Nazi sympathies taint his entire body of work. (Lars von Trier either parodied or confirmed this attitude by prominently featuring the prelude to Tristan and Isolde in his 2011 film Melancholia, and then at its Cannes premiere, declaring himself a Nazi and a Hitler sympathizer.) For his defenders, his work was at once beautiful and pushed the boundaries of modern music. Tristan and Isolde is a showcase of his undeniable talents: flirting with weird tonal ideas, strategically suspending harmonies to crank up the tension to 11 for an agonizing four-plus hours.
It’s also a great showcase for a diva. Unfortunately for the Washington National Opera, the hype of the first production of its season was overshadowed by the bombshell that its star, Deborah Voigt, had dropped out a week before its opening. The reason, she later told The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette, was being out of practice due to a stomach illness and realizing that her voice wasn’t quite up to snuff. This sounds fishy. Professional opera singers know what they can handle—-certainly Wagner singers, who, due to his operas’ extreme demands, often train for nothing but Wagner—-and if they can’t, they don’t suddenly realize it a week before opening. Voigt has been gossip fodder for the opera press for some time, most notoriously for getting fired from a 2004 Royal Opera House production because the casting director deemed her too fat. It was an incident which sparked a needed debate within the opera world about creeping fat-phobia in an art form long open to (even demanding) larger figures, but for Voigt it sparked a gastric-bypass surgery, alcoholism, and cancellations of other performances for medical reasons. Add to this the pressures of age and a perception that she’s nearing the end of her career, and it could be any number of things.
Whatever was going on, Voigt haunts this production even in her absence—-there she is on the cover of the playbill—-and will draw inevitable comparisons to WNO’s last minute replacement, Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin (except for the Sept. 27 performance, which will star Alwyn Mellor). How does she do? Just fine. The opera is a test of stamina for singer and audience alike, and while Theorin sputters out a bit at the very end, she nails the musical and narrative crux in Act II. One imagines Voigt, diva that she is, may have chewed the scenery a bit more, but then so might have Theorin with more than a week’s preparation. Ian Storey as Tristan is reliable if not terribly memorable, but Elizabeth Bishop as that crafty handmaiden Brangäne is wonderful in her duets with Theorin. An added bonus is the very German pronunciation of baritone Wilhelm Schwinghammer as King Marke (“Trrrristan!”), who is actually German.
The production itself, a rental from Opera Australia, leaves something to be desired. The set, made up of a stage suspended over a pool and gauzy curtains resembling mosquito netting in a field hospital, doesn’t change through the three acts except in color. A minor annoyance is the pool’s wave-maker thingy, which was visibly and audibly distracting during the prelude, otherwise conducted with nice restraint by Philippe Augin. Augin and the WNO Orchestra take the audience on such a thrilling, yet nuanced, ride through Tristan and Isolde’s cadences and harmonies that you almost forget your ass fell asleep somewhere between the second and third acts.
Did I mention this thing is long? Bladder-bustingly long, if not for two intermissions that push the whole thing close to the five-hour mark. Tristan and Isolde is not a good first opera for newbies, and even for opera veterans there are lulls that start feel like a long plane ride. Dramatically, it’s a story in which very little happens, and that which does happens slowly. For something lighter and more accessible, try a Mozart opera—-the WNO does The Magic Flute in May. But if you’ve got the endurance, Tristan is a worthy test of it.
Tristan and Isolde plays through Sept. 27 at the Kennedy Center.
Photo by Scott Suchman