Expectations run high when Seattle Opera presents Wagner. Because of the company’s storied history with that composer’s monumental works, operagoers were prepared for great music on opening night of “Tristan and Isolde.”
And indeed, there was superb music from a first-rate cast and orchestra Saturday night. But what few could have anticipated is how gorgeous this “Tristan” (running through Oct. 29) would look — and how the brilliant use of projections on the stage can draw the audience into the inner world of the two protagonists. Wagnerian opera is known for its lengthy dialogues and monologues where not much action takes place. (There’s an old joke about the sole advice of a Wagnerian stage director: “Stand there, and sing.” Not this time!)
Stage director Marcelo Lombardero and set/video designer Diego Siliano have created a game-changing “Tristan” with this remarkable production. Here the characters’ world changes around them, as video projections envelop the stage in constantly shifting locations — from stormy seas to starlit skies and beautiful forest vistas. At key moments, a platform lift elevates Tristan and Isolde literally into a world of their own, surrounded by vivid swirls of clouds and stars as they hail a “night of love.” It’s breathtakingly lovely; we see the universe literally change around the two singers, as they are enveloped in a different and beautiful reality that reflects what they’re feeling.
What a boon this development could be, enabling opera companies to change the entire set within seconds to reflect what the singers are feeling and singing. This may well be the most beautiful and effective direction in operatic set design; it will be intriguing to see how this trend develops. Hefty cheers to lighting designer Horacio Efron and video animator Matias Otálora.
Fortunately, the singers and the orchestra, under the direction of conductor Jordan de Souza, also ensure that the musical values are paramount. The orchestral Prelude to Act III was especially fine, with a warm, rich symphonic sound ushering in the tragic finale.
From her first scene to the final “Liebestod” (“love-death”), Mary Elizabeth Williams sang her first Isolde with an authority and brilliance that illuminated one of the most challenging roles in the operatic repertoire. Her voice has the unflagging power and heft for the role, but she also has the subtlety to “dial down” that intensity to convey tenderness and uncertainty. Williams is a compelling actor, whether she is raging against an arranged marriage or ecstatic with love for Tristan.
Stefan Vinke, a seasoned Wagnerian who made his Seattle debut in the 2013 “Ring,” is an authoritative Tristan; he sang with powerful energy and stamina even in the ultimate challenge of Act III. His final scene, as Tristan subsides in death after recognizing Isolde, was deeply affecting, capped by Williams’ radiant “Liebestod.”
The supporting cast was remarkably good. Amber Wagner was a first-rate Brangäne, powerful but nuanced; she is a prime mover in the plot for secretly providing Tristan and Isolde with the fateful love potion. The warm-voiced bass Morris Robinson provided a moral compass and suitable gravity as King Marke (whom Isolde was supposed to marry). His dignity and decency underscore the bitterness of their betrayal. And Ryan McKinny’s loyal, resonant Kurwenal was a vital element throughout the production. Viktor Antipenko was effective as the villainous Melot.
The unsung heroes of any Wagnerian opera are the orchestra players, who are grappling with that huge and glorious score for more than four and a half hours. Kudos to them all, particularly to the eloquent English horn of Stefan Farkas, whose solo passages added so much to the atmosphere of longing and heartbreak.
Not all the audience possessed the stamina of the Wagnerian cast; there was a scattering of empty seats among the house when Act III began. The early departers missed some of the most beautiful and heart-rending moments in the production.