RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Prelude and Act Two from Tristan und Isolde—Jay Hunter Morris (Tristan), Heidi Melton (Isolde), Elizabeth Bishop (Brangäne), Richard Wiegold (König Marke), Wade Henderson (Melot); North Carolina Opera Orchestra; Timothy Myers, conductor [North Carolina Opera; Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina; Sunday, 9 November 2014]
To the uninitiated, the basic plot of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde must seem one of the most improbable dramas in opera. En route to be presented to her new husband, girl encounters boy with whom she has a complex history, girl’s confidante attempts to save the day by substituting a love potion for the requested poison, girl and boy sing rapturous love duet, amorous bliss is complicated by envy, boy dies, and girl is transfixed, transfigured, or in some inexplicable manner transformed by the loss of her soul mate. In the course of the opera, several of the clichés often cited in the persecution of opera are perpetuated: the meddling but well-meaning seconda donna, the inevitable love triangle, the character who takes rather longer to expire than is physiologically credible. The listener fortunate enough to encounter a good performance of Tristan und Isolde is unlikely to be concerned about clichés and dramatic verisimilitude, however. Drawing inspiration from his own famously tempestuous life, particularly his idealized veneration of Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner injected his music for Tristan und Isolde with a hypnotic blend of sensuality, deeply personal betrayal, and pathos. It is a demon of an opera that crushes those who attempt it without the preparedness and respect that it merits. For reasons of expense, musical requirements, and sheer enormity, Wagner’s operas are beyond the purview of many of America’s regional opera companies. North Carolina Opera’s performance of the Prelude and Act Two of Tristan und Isolde in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall obliterated the idea that Wagner’s music belongs solely on the Green Hill or at Lincoln Center. In comparison with performances of Tristan und Isolde in recent reasons, in fact, both Bayreuth and the Metropolitan Opera could learn from North Carolina Opera’s casting, rehearsing, and performing even the most difficult scores with unaffected elegance and unyielding musicality.
Furthering the splendid impression made by his handling of the Wagnerian elements in Dvořák’s Rusalka in North Carolina Opera’s performance earlier this year, the company’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Timothy Myers presided over a compelling account of music from Tristan und Isolde. The ‘Tristan chord,’ after nearly 140 years still regarded as one of the most groundbreaking sounds in Western music, dispersed a mood of dramatic ambiguity throughout Meymandi Concert Hall, and the anxiety generated in the opening bars of the Prelude was maintained until the last note of Act Two. The concept of offering the opera’s Prelude and Act Two in concert is an excellent means of introducing an audience to Tristan und Isolde, particularly in consideration of the prohibitively extravagant resources required to produce a staging of the opera and the potential pitfalls of performing the complete score in concert. Approaching Act Two as a distinct narrative in its own context, Maestro Myers achieved the continuity and sense of fulfillment brought in past to similarly-conceived performances by conductors as diverse as Hans Weisbach, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and William Steinberg. Maestro Myers marshaled the forces of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra with acute awareness of the finely-wrought structures of Wagner’s scoring and motivic figurations. Dynamic contrasts were never exploited merely for easy effects: under Maestro Myer’s direction, the peaks of orchestral volume were organic manifestations of the passions evoked by the music. Tristan und Isolde is a monumentally daunting score for the orchestra: at least as much of the opera’s action is carried out in the pit as on the stage, and the tasks faced by the instrumentalists are hardly less exhausting than those endured by the singers. Like Maestro Myers, the NCO Orchestra players continued the legacy of excellence exemplified by their playing of Rusalka. The horns were formidably solid of intonation, a rarity complemented by woodwind playing that crackled with danger and eroticism. Very few sour notes were heard in exposed passages—or, indeed, in any passages. String textures were kept lean, but passages of lush Romanticism were granted luxurious floods of tone. Wagner’s music almost certainly is not prominent in the musicians’ repertories, but Maestro Myers led the orchestral players in a performance that articulated the textures of the score with clarity that was frequently astounding.
Hearing her music sung not only capably but attractively is an ironic reminder of how dispiriting a presence Brangäne is in many performances of Tristan und Isolde. Elizabeth Bishop’s Brangäne was a handmaiden worthy of her mistress, her vocalism full, steady, and wonderfully-projected. She and Heidi Melton’s Isolde made of their scene at the beginning of Act Two a credible exchange between a lovesick princess and the confidante who knows that deadly treachery is afoot. Ms. Melton sang Isolde’s opening 'Hörst du sie noch?' with girlish anticipation, responding to the wonderfully accurately-tuned offstage horns. Ms. Bishop replied with an urgent 'Noch sind sie nah’,’ and both ladies rose without strain to the G♭ and G on which their lines crested. Likewise, the repeated ascents to top G in her 'Dem Freund zu Lieb' erfand diese List aus Mitleid Melot, der Freund' gave Ms. Melton no problems. Ms. Bishop soared thrillingly to the top A on ‘Wehe!’ in 'O lass' die warnende Zünde!' Ms. Melton’s singing of 'Wie sie es wendet, wie sie es endet' was unanswerable: this Isolde’s desire to be united with her Tristan was not to be thwarted.
Compelled to rise to top A♭ on the second note of his first exclamation of ‘Isolde!’ in the second scene, Jay Hunter Morris immediately displayed his command of Tristan’s punishing tessitura. His strong, nasal timbre mostly successfully combatted the orchestra, but a measure of forcing was required in moments of greatest stress. He matched Ms. Melton well in the rapid-fire lines of their conversation. Her 'Tristan! Geliebter!' rang out with abandon, the top A and B♭ slightly pushed but perfectly steady. Then, she hurled the pair of top Cs in 'O Wonne der Seele' into the auditorium like rock-solid, pitch-perfect thunderbolts. Mr. Morris coped manfully with the assault on his passaggio in 'In deiner Hand den süssen Tod, als ich ihn erkannt, den sie mir bot,’ and his singing of ‘O Heil dem Tranke!’ was superb. His finest vocalism of the afternoon was devoted to his launching of the lyrical section of the celebrated love duet, 'O sink' hernieder, Nacht der Liebe.’ Ms. Melton joined him energetically, bringing unwavering intensity to 'Barg im Busen uns sich die Sonne,' and she and Mr. Morris lent their unison top A♭ on 'selbst dann bin ich die Welt' a cathartic charge.
Singing from the hall’s top tier, Ms. Bishop provided a gorgeous performance of Brangäne’s Watch, phrasing 'Einsam wachend in der Nacht' with imagination and supplying a stream of plush, intoxicatingly beautiful vocalism. Tristan’s 'Lass den Tag dem Tode weichen!' was shaped poetically by Mr. Morris, and he reacted to Ms. Melton’s radiantly-intoned 'Doch unsre Liebe, heisst sie nicht Tristan und Isolde?' with a touching voicing of 'So stürben wir, um ungetrennt, ewig einig, ohne End', ohn' Erwachen, ohn' Erbangen,’ the Liebestod motif caressed affectionately. Only fools would have failed to heed Ms. Brangäne’s interruption with cries of 'Habet Acht!' as sung by Ms. Bishop, but this Tristan and Isolde were too focused on their own love to allow the world beyond themselves to encroach upon their temporal happiness, their unison 'O ew'ge Nacht, süsse Nacht! Hehr erhab'ne Liebesnacht!' ardently rendered by Ms. Melton and Mr. Morris. The soprano’s phrasing of 'Ohne Nennen, ohne Trennen, neu Erkennen, neu Entbrennen' glowed with fervor, and Ms. Melton resolved the scene’s prolonged tension with her long-held top A and gloriously-sung climactic top B.
Tenor Wade Henderson made a rousing entrance with Melot’s 'Das sollst du, Herr, mir sagen,’ and though his rôle was brief his menace was pervasive. Many Melots are Monostatoses who struggle against the might of Wagner’s orchestra. Mr. Henderson did not have to resort to bellowing in order to be heard, and his virile singing made him a genuine threat to Tristan rather than a priggish weakling. That such a duplicitous man could serve a sovereign as distinguished as Richard Wiegold’s König Marke was a central component of the tragedy in this performance. The Welsh bass’s singing of 'Sieh' ihn dort, den Treu'sten aller Treuen' brimmed with shock and true sadness, prompting Mr. Morris to infuse Tristan’s defiant 'Tagsgespenster! Morgentraüme!’ with a suggestion of shame. In Mr. Wiegold’s performance, Marke’s 'Mir dies? Dies, Tristan, mir? Wohin nun Treue, da Tristan mich betrog?' was immensely moving, the security of his C and D at the top of the staff equaled by the firmness of his descent to low A on 'da Tristan mich verrieth?’ His tenderness in describing Isolde as 'Dies wundervolle Weib' was heartbreaking. The top Es in 'Nun, da durch solchen Besitz mein Herz du fühlsamer schufst als sonst dem Schmerz' troubled Mr. Wiegold no more than his resonant low A and G in 'Den unerforschlich tief geheimnissvollen Grund, wer macht der Welt ihn kund?’ Marke’s monologue often seems to stall the progress of the drama, but in Mr. Wiegold’s hands it was the emotional pinnacle of the performance. His vocalism was extraordinarily handsome, and the abiding decency of the character he created incited an inundation of sympathy for Marke’s despair.
In the final minutes of the performance, Mr. Morris’s dulcet voicing of 'Wohin nun Tristan scheidet, willst du, Isold', ihm folgen?' drew from Ms. Melton a sweetly determined statement of 'Als für ein fremdes Land der Freund sie einstens warb, dem Unholden treu und hold musst' Isolde folgen.' Mr. Henderson’s interjection of 'Verräther! Ha! Zur Rache, König! Duldest du diese Schmach?' seethed with contempt. As he raised his sword against the man who betrayed him to Marke by revealing his own betrayal, Tristan had the last word with ‘Wehr dich, Melot!’ The power unleashed by Mr. Morris on his final top A closed a performance notable for its energy and perceptiveness.
A concert performance seldom achieves dramatic potency as great as that possible in staged performances, but North Carolina Opera’s concert presentation of the Prelude and Act Two of Tristan und Isolde possessed wealths of intelligence, exuberance, and honest feeling. Wagner’s music is some of the most difficult in opera, but it is harder still for performers who do not comprehend the composer’s distinctive style. Every artist whose talents were engaged in this performance held nothing back. This Tristan und Isolde was not just the product of a team of musicians putting in a good afternoon’s work. It was an unwonted opportunity to hear Wagner’s music as it ought to be heard—no shouting, barking, or haphazard playing, no misguided efforts at adapting the opera to modern sensibilities, no compromises made in the interest of merely surviving the demands of the score. This was an afternoon of great voices and great musicians putting the efforts of many of the world’s most renowned Wagnerians to shame.