HOUSTON (AP) — Thunderbolts and torrential rains greeted the audience arriving for Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" at the Wortham Theater Center on Saturday night. Inside the opera house they experienced a different kind of storm — a flood of glorious sound as Nina Stemme unfurled her magnificent voice.
The Swedish soprano gave a performance of overwhelming vocal and dramatic intensity as the Irish princess, from gleaming top notes down to a potent, crystal-clear lower register. Her high C's at the beginning of the love duet in Act 2 rang out with sustained brilliance, and she finished the night with a rapturous "Liebestod," capped by a luminous, lingering, hushed final note.
Stemme, looking glamorous in first a white strapless gown and then a black dress, captured all facets of Isolde's character — her initial rage and contempt, her headlong yielding to passion, and finally her serene transfiguration. The fury she brought to Isolde's Narrative and Curse in Act 1 was chilling, and there was an icy bitterness in the way she spat out the word "knecht" (the equivalent of "lackey") at Tristan. Once she had drunk the love potion, her voice became by turns tender and filled with soaring ecstasy.
Most of all she brought an assurance and sense of inevitability to her performance, managing to make one of the most difficult roles in all of opera sound easy. She does not quite have the superhuman lung power of a Birgit Nilsson (who does?), but Stemme is in every other way a worthy successor to her legendary compatriot.
The Houston Grand Opera surrounded her with a terrific cast, starting with Canadian tenor Ben Heppner as Tristan. Hobbled in recent years by severe vocal problems, he proved at least on this night a worthy partner. His leathery voice rang out with moody expressiveness in Act 1, and he kept pace with Stemme throughout the Act 2 love duet with its many exposed passages. Only near the end of Act 3 did he run into some unsteadiness, but even then he powered through the final moments of delirium with eloquence.
As Isolde's faithful but rather clueless servant, Brangaene, German mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke produced ribbons of bright, ardent sound with effortless top notes. German bass Christof Fischesser cut an unusually youthful and animated figure as the cuckolded King Marke and brought a big, burnished sound to his monologue. American baritone Ryan McKinny sang heartily as Tristan's friend Kurwenal, but he seemed to be pushing his attractive voice to its limits.
Music director Patrick Summers drew a rich and exciting performance of the score from the excellent orchestra.
The production by German director Christof Loy was originally seen with the same two leads at London's Covent Garden in 2009. It separates the worlds of external reality and interior consciousness on either side of a red curtain that is pulled open at key moments. This creates some striking images — like the king's retinue gaping in disbelief at the adulterous lovers, who carry on unaware of their presence.
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