A Wagner Skeptic Reports on a Stylish Tristan in Concert

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Lisa Wong (acting chorus director), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 29.4.2018. (MSJ)

Gerhard Siegel (Tristan), Nina Stemme (Isolde) & Cleveland Orchestra (c) Roger Mastroianni)

Isolde – Nina Stemme
Tristan – Gerhard Siegel
Brangäne – Okka von der Damerau
Kurwenal – Alan Held
King Marke – Ain Anger
Young Sailor, Shepherd – Matthew Plenk
Steersman – Francisco X. Prado

How much is too much? It’s a question that every artist has to weigh before releasing his or her inspiration on the general public. Some keep their personal lives closely guarded and only hinted at in their creative work (a stance which in itself reveals a lot about the artist). Some try to balance the formal, public requirements of art with their inner world. But there are always some who plunge into their most interior depths and come forth bringing treasures to show the world, no matter how uncomfortable the confessions might potentially make their audiences.

Richard Wagner often fell into a middle group, striking a balance. But one time he went full-bore confessional, and ended up changing the course of European music history. Whether or not one cares for the final product, there’s no denying that the recent centuries of European classical music can be neatly divided up into before Tristan and after Tristan. Before Tristan und Isolde, the typical structure of music was in self-contained periods lasting from a few seconds to, at most, a few minutes. Then there would be a harmonic cadence to satisfyingly close off that section before a new one began. Wagner’s revolutionary discovery was how the delayed gratification of a satisfying cadence builds up tension. Expressively, this became a potent representation of unrequited love, which Wagner himself was suffering from in the late 1850s. This fount of never-ending melody that Wagner opened let him gush in an opera that runs nearly four hours (not including the two intermissions between acts). It’s the Mount Everest of opera, an undeniable fortress of the classical repertory.

But how well does it actually hold up? One can perhaps best appreciate the piece by keeping in mind its revolutionary new approach to musical language. And one should experience it at least once to get first-hand exposure to Wagner’s ‘endless melody’. The fine line with confessional art, however, is that it can easily cross over into indulgence. And in my estimation, Tristan is exhaustively indulgent, with 35 minutes of sheer genius and over three hours of indulgent padding. In performance, that becomes an endurance rite for both performers and audience. That said, while the crowd thinned slightly as the afternoon wore into evening during this concert performance by the Cleveland Orchestra, the vast majority remained and enthusiastically cheered the performers at the end.

The clear star was soprano Nina Stemme, who owned the stage as Isolde. Stemme has a rare and remarkable ability to project with such power that her voice sails out over the top of a full orchestra, yet she never sounds strained or ugly. Even at maximum volume, her tone remains rich and full. It’s a part she clearly knows well, as she often stepped away from the score on her music stand to sing out, unencumbered, on the ship-like platform built above and behind the orchestra.

Gerhard Siegel was not of the same vocal heft as Stemme, having to save his vocal firepower for his big moments later. He made his strongest impression in Tristan’s quieter moments, which were effectively expressive. Okka von der Damerau exuded warmth as Isolde’s maid Brangäne. Though her voice is clearly lighter than Stemme’s, Okka von der Damerau was almost as effective in projecting it over the orchestra and not getting buried by Wagner’s drenched sonorities. Alan Held was compelling as Tristan’s faithful aide Kurwenal, making each phrase he sang feel lively and spontaneous. Ain Anger’s King Marke was poised and imposing, while Sean Michael Plumb was incisive as the courtier Melot. Matthew Plenk was fresh-voiced as the Young Sailor and the Shepherd and Francisco X. Prado was solid as the Steersman. The men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus made lively contributions to the first act, abetted by brass instruments in the Severance Hall balcony, likely startling those in the dress circle who didn’t see the players slip in.

Franz Welser-Möst was in his element, quietly but commandingly moving things along without any expressive grandstanding. Here and there, one might wish that the conductor would linger a little more, such as in the heart-seizing torpor at the top of Act III, a passage recycled by Wagner from his own Wesendonck Lieder. But Welser-Möst achieved intensity from the orchestra with breathtaking quiet dynamics throughout. The ensemble was in fine form, matching the singers in long-breathed phrasing. Russ deLuna was forlorn in the offstage English horn solo, Michael Sachs mastered the offstage Holztrompete (a long herald trumpet), and Yann Ghiro filled the hall with his solo bass clarinet moments.

The performance was another strong installment in the thought-provoking series of semi-staged and in-concert operas that Welser-Möst has been offering in Cleveland in recent years—both connecting to the orchestra’s history of producing operas under Artur Rodzinski in the 1930s, and strengthening their stylish playing for the future.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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