The capacity to combine the arts — music, theater, stunning visual effects, dance — is one of opera’s great attractions. But along with encouraging an interdisciplinary vision, opera thrives on international collaboration as well. 

Christina Scheppelmann, Seattle Opera’s general director, fervently believes that cross-cultural exchange is vital for the health of the art form. So she invited the prominent Argentine stage director Marcelo Lombardero and his creative team to bring their vision to Seattle in a production of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” opening Oct. 15.

Originally created for the Teatro Argentino in La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires province, this “Tristan” has also traveled to Europe and now marks the U.S. opera debut of Lombardero and his team. 

“South America has a long operatic tradition. Several of the theaters there were built before any opera house existed in the U.S.,” Scheppelmann points out. “But we tend not to look south.”

Indeed, the Teatro Solís in Uruguay, which has a claim to be the oldest extant opera house in the Americas, opened in 1856 — three years before Wagner completed “Tristan.”

“I intentionally looked south because of the great creativity there,” says Scheppelmann. “I feel we have a lot of potential colleagues and coproduction rental opportunities in those countries.” 

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She calls the upcoming “Tristan” a “true collaboration.” It’s based on what was originally designed for the Teatro Argentino, but most of the physical scenic elements are being built by Seattle Opera. 

The choice to bring the production to Seattle Opera is especially significant. For decades, the company proudly maintained its status as a major Wagner destination, attracting fans of the composer’s “Ring” cycle above all. This “Tristan” comes after a long hiatus. Aside from the composer’s early “The Flying Dutchman,” which was presented in 2016 (and an abridged concert version of “Die Walkure” in 2021), the last Wagner staged by Seattle Opera was the four-opera “Ring” cycle in 2013.

Lombardero comes with impressive credentials. A former baritone who sang several Wagner roles, he served terms as artistic director of Argentina’s two leading opera houses: the Teatro Colón and, until 2013, the Teatro Argentino. His “Tristan” was a milestone for the latter in 2011, ending a Wagner drought of almost 60 years at the fabled house. 

Lombardero also embarked on an ambitious “Ring” staging at the Teatro Argentino, but the country’s economic crisis forced him to discontinue. Despite the setbacks, he is regarded as one of the most engaging and original directors in South America. (Samples of his work can be viewed on his YouTube channel.)

Staging “Tristan and Isolde” poses unique challenges. Wagner distilled the originally Celtic legend of forbidden love to an ultra-minimalist plot in which no external action happens for vast stretches: The focus is on the internal drama of the main characters. 

Captured by the knight Tristan as a trophy bride for his surrogate father King Marke, Isolde is consumed by rage throughout the first act — until she and Tristan are swept away by a love potion Isolde unintentionally serves in her attempt to poison him. The third act is preoccupied with the delirious Tristan, mortally wounded after his betrayal of Marke is discovered. Between these comes an enormous love duet filling much of the second act.

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Rather than present a realistic narrative, Lombardero and designer Diego Siliano embed the singers in a virtual reality of subtly shifting front and back projections. The style pioneered by the fantasy cartoonists and comic book artists Alberto Breccia and Hugo Pratt inspired this visual framework. Against the background mix of photographic and film projections, mobility is provided by a couple of platform lifts.

“It’s actually the most traditional of my productions,” Lombardero explained in a Zoom conversation shortly after he had arrived in town for rehearsals. “For this specific opera, my point of view is not important.” The task he set himself is to create a framework in which “time and space are suspended,” allowing the audience “to assimilate all these feelings aroused by Wagner’s music.” 

The costumes designed by Luciana Gutman harmonize with the fantasy setting and also reflect the timelessness of “Tristan and Isolde” by incorporating allusions to different eras. Gutman says that subtle changes in the colors of the costumes and Horacio Efron’s lighting are made each time the production is staged anew. 

Scheppelmann also invited the young, Berlin-based Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza to make his Seattle Opera debut — the first time he is taking on this epochal score. He will conduct a cast headed by Wagnerian veteran Stefan Vinke (Siegfried in the 2013 “Ring” here) as Tristan and Seattle favorite Mary Elizabeth Williams making her role debut as Isolde. 

“‘Tristan’ is a piece that makes you feel like your whole life has been a preparation for it,” de Souza remarked after his first rehearsal. He was excited by their work on the pivotal moment when Tristan and Isolde drink a potion that, intended to be poison, fatefully turns out to be a love elixir. The potion is a mere pretext that, as Lombardero puts it, “takes away their inhibitions.” 

“The goal is to make us all feel the effects of the potion,” says de Souza. “So we need to establish a pre-potion sound world as well. In a way, we’ve started with a more traditional opera: a fierce heroine who is looking to exact revenge. All of a sudden, in this stroke of theatrical genius, everything changes.” 

Although this is de Souza’s first time collaborating with Lombardero and his team, he senses an immediate connection. “Marcelo is a very musical stage director and has created a beautiful tapestry for this opera. Wagner opens the floodgates of our imagination. You’re not the same after having interacted with the entire musical world he creates — not as a performer, not as an audience member.”

“Tristan and Isolde”

Music and libretto by Richard Wagner. Oct. 15-29; Seattle Opera at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; tickets from $35; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org