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Tristan and Isolde is crowning achievement of Houston Grand Opera season, but it's likely to drive you mad

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Houston Grand Opera Tristan and Isolde April 2013 Ben Heppner as Tristan and Ryan McKinny as Kurwenal in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde
Ben Heppner as Tristan and Ryan McKinny as Kurwenal in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde. Photo by © Felix Sanchez
Houston Grand Opera Tristan and Isolde April 2013 Christof Fischesser as King Marke in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde
Christof Fischesser as King Marke in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde. Photo by © Felix Sanchez
Houston Grand Opera Tristan and Isolde April 2013 Nina Stemme as Isolde and Ben Heppner as Tristan in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde
Nina Stemme as Isolde and Ben Heppner as Tristan in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde. Photo by © Felix Sanchez
Houston Grand Opera Tristan and Isolde April 2013 Nina Stemme as Isolde in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde
Nina Stemme as Isolde in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde. Photo by © Felix Sanchez
Houston Grand Opera Tristan and Isolde April 2013 Ben Heppner as Tristan and Ryan McKinny as Kurwenal in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde
Houston Grand Opera Tristan and Isolde April 2013 Christof Fischesser as King Marke in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde
Houston Grand Opera Tristan and Isolde April 2013 Nina Stemme as Isolde and Ben Heppner as Tristan in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde
Houston Grand Opera Tristan and Isolde April 2013 Nina Stemme as Isolde in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde
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Never underestimate the power of an opera. When it came to his own Tristan and Isolde, composer Richard Wagner felt only mediocre performances could save him, “for good ones would surely drive people mad,” according to scholar Patrick Carnegy.

Beware — likely the most exciting production of Houston Grand Opera’s current season, this Tristan and Isolde is at least on the brink of driving audiences mad. A stellar cast has been assembled, orchestra musicians are at the top of their game, and the production is both perplexing and mesmerizing.   

Is there a more compelling overture, a more swooning musical behemoth, in all of western opera? Thursday night artistic and music director Patrick Summers made it clear that his interpretation would be confident, clear, and yet still filled with that disturbing sense of unconsummated brooding.

Sure, that sounds like a crazy summary, but chromatic frustration is at the core of this opera, and he and the players have captured it brilliantly without losing any sophistication.    

There is much to admire about Johannes Leiacker’s set design, which in mood and palette is very similar to Pina Bausch’s early Tanztheater works, in particular Rolf Borzik’s designs for Café Müller and Kontakthof. I wouldn’t be surprised if Leiacker named David Lynch as an influence, either.

 Artistic and music director Patrick Summers made it clear that his interpretation would be confident, clear, and yet still filled with that disturbing sense of unconsummated brooding. 

If you’re expecting a generic ship deck, castle bedroom and Tristan’s faded home in Brittany, you’ll be either disappointed or delightfully surprised, depending on your perspective. Really the only bright colors are some sweaters worn by the women, and later on, blood.

 Leiacker has gone for a sort of post-modern archetype: a steeply raked platform with yet another proscenium set inside it, complete with curtains that keep opening and closing to reveal the suggestion of a Second Empire dining room. Only one of the large window panes therein is “real.” The other two, and some pillars, are outlined in black crayon on a white wall. There are a few tables and chairs, along with some dramatic candelabras, and most everything is black, white or grey.

The setting evokes a mise en abyme, the play within the play, but also a term meaning “placed into abyss.” The phrase refers as well to an image reflected between two mirrors. As metaphors for the plight of the lovers, the design is clever and functional.

Leiacker’s costumes are less notable, however, perhaps too simply evoking Pina Bausch’s aesthetic; baggy dinner jackets for the men and a few sad party dresses for the women. We’ve seen this look time again since, well, Pina Bausch popularized it decades ago. Isolde wears black or white, depending on what the action of the story suggests.  

These set designs turn more complicated under Olaf Winter’s sophisticated lighting. Like Jane Cox’s extraordinary design for HGO’s Lucia di Lammermoor two years ago, Winter brings us a visual symphony of shadows and angles. The performance is about four-and-a-half hours long. The shifts in lighting, some of them neo-expressionist, become crucial to the progress of the performance.  

Celebrated Canadian tenor Ben Heppner made his HGO debut as Tristan. I had such high hopes, after seeing him in Robert Wilson’s Lohengrin. Just five years ago, music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote, “… you don’t mount Tristan without a real Tristan. And Mr. Heppner showed again why he is the reigning Wagnerian tenor of our day,” in reference to performances at the Metropolitan Opera.

If only Heppner had shown the same Thursday night! Clearly, he wasn’t in a reigning mode, which is worrisome. It didn’t seem a matter of carelessness, and I can’t imagine what was at the heart of the problem. After a few phrases in Act I, it was evident that Heppner still has a powerful and commanding voice able to soar over a large orchestra.

 The night belonged to the Nina Stemme, a glamorous Swedish soprano making her HGO debut as Isolde. 

But that power waned, and by the middle of the Act II, he was regularly flat at the top of his voice and reaching for the high notes. His voice cracked and he was so hoarse he choked out parts of his lengthy duet with Isolde. It seemed as if he he was struggling to just sing through an illness. He was the only cast member who was occasionally drowned by the orchestra.

The night belonged to the Nina Stemme, a glamorous Swedish soprano also making her HGO debut as Isolde. Her portrayal is feisty, sexual, and especially in the third act, transcendent. I wasn’t thrilled that Christof Loy’s direction called for her to begin the famous liebestod curled up in the dying Tristan’s arms (one of many of his misplaced stage directions), because she was singing directly into the floor. Once standing, however, she made the aria into the most extraordinary scene of this season at HGO.

The rest of the cast, as already mentioned, is top-notch. Particularly memorable is German mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke as a suspiciously Mrs. Danvers-like Brangäne. A strong, clear voice and vivid acting make her HGO debut a complete success. Kevin Ray is a thrilling Melot (I would have preferred to hear him as Tristan), Ryan McKinny a movie-star like Kurwenal with a commanding technique, and Christof Fischesser an intriguing and wonderfully brooding King Marke.   

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