A Liebestod to Die For

Patrick Summers
Wall Street Journal

By Heidi Waleson

Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" (1865) can be a long, undifferentiated wallow in chromaticism and endless debates about love, but thanks to a magnificent soprano, a laser-focused production and an energetic conductor, the Houston Grand Opera's performance is an enthralling theatrical event.

The Swedish soprano Nina Stemme is matchless in Wagner: Her supple, alluring voice with its rich low register, blazing top notes and gleaming, sustained power that fearlessly rides the orchestra is matched by her intelligent, committed acting. Ms. Stemme's Isolde is complex and fascinating, a character who grows and changes in the course of the evening.

She lights up Christof Loy's staging, originally produced at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. With stark sets and modern costumes by Johannes Leiacker and powerful lighting by Olaf Winter, this production is rooted in the opera's long debates about night and day: It is all about death, and how the two lovers struggle toward their final communion there. The conductor, Patrick Summers, captures that constant sense of struggle and uncertainty. Even the moments of unity between these two lovers are fraught with tension—their erotic urgency in Act II quivers with unconsummated desperation—until the radiant final resolution of Ms. Stemme's "Liebestod."

The set divides the action into two spaces. Intimate scenes take place in a white-walled foreground room; a curtain at the rear is pulled open to reveal a second room when the rest of the world intrudes. In Act I, for example, tables in the back room are set for Isolde and King Marke's wedding reception in Cornwall. Nearly everything is black or white: Isolde begins the opera in a wedding dress, but when she and Tristan share the potion that she thinks will bring both of them death, she wears funereal black.

Mr. Loy's staging choices work seamlessly with the music. When the unsettled "Tristan" chord sounds after the protagonists drink the love potion, Ms. Stemme's body loses its furious rigidity and collapses, melting down along the wall. In the love duet of Act II, the lights go dim as the two find their longed-for "night;" it blazes suddenly into day as Melot and King Marke burst in on their rapture.

After 15 years of experience with the role, Ben Heppner remains a consummate Tristan. Though occasionally pushed, his Heldentenor sound is vivid and expressive, capturing Tristan's mood swings as it warms into lyricism or edges into hysteria and delirium in Act III. He communicates Tristan's longing for death from his very first appearance—wearing black, staring at the ground, refusing to interact. One feels Ms. Stemme's vital Isolde pulling him inexorably into her orbit.

The strong supporting cast includes Claudia Mahnke, a vibrant Brangäne; Christof Fischesser, a young-sounding King Marke; and Ryan McKinny, an affecting Kurwenal.



Composers interested in writing operas should study the oeuvre of Dominick Argento, whose "The Aspern Papers" (1988) recently had a splendid new production at the Dallas Opera, the company that commissioned it and gave the work its world premiere. Mr. Argento writes his own librettos, and his predominantly tonal music makes text intelligibility paramount while maintaining its own distinctive profile.

In "The Aspern Papers," Mr. Argento skillfully opens up the Henry James novella, adding a backstory and more characters, so that past and present coexist and collide. In the novella, the narrator, a scholar of the long-dead poet Jeffrey Aspern, insinuates himself into the household of Juliana Bordereau, the poet's aged former lover, to try and secure the valuable papers that may be in her possession. Mr. Argento moves the action from Venice to Lake Como, Italy, makes Aspern a composer and Juliana an opera singer; key among the papers is the manuscript of a never-heard opera, "Medea," that disappeared after the composer drowned in 1835.

The action alternates seamlessly between 1835 and 1885, gradually revealing the long-ago trauma of infidelity and death that turned Juliana into a recluse, hoarding her lover's final creation. While some of the vocal writing is overly declamatory—particularly for the Lodger, strongly portrayed in Dallas by Nathan Gunn—the subtly scored orchestra and the tautly written ensembles demonstrate a firm grasp of theatrical pacing and variety.

The most potently written character is Tina, Juliana's repressed spinster niece, inhabited here with great presence by Susan Graham. Tina has four standout arias, tracing her awakening to life and feeling after years in the shadows, as the Lodger seduces her to get access to the papers. (Their a cappella duet at the end of Act I is an ingenious piece of writing.) As Juliana, the fierce Alexandra Deshorties slipped easily from embodying the young opera diva, warbling bel canto-style coloratura, to the old crone. Joseph Kaiser was a sturdy-voiced, dashing Aspern; Sasha Cooke was sweet as the ingénue Sonia, who steals Aspern's heart and breaks Juliana's.

Graeme Jenkins, in his final performance as the company's music director, steadily paced Mr. Argento's mercurial orchestrations, which ranged from the delicate chimes that transported us into the past to grandly colorful, Debussy-like effusions. Tim Albery's production astutely captured the opera's cinematic travels through time; Constance Hoffman's costumes and Thomas Hase's lighting helped differentiate the eras against set designer Andrew Lieberman's moldering villa walls.

The production also kept the parallels clear: For the final scenes, the walls disappeared, revealing the lake and a small fire pit in the foreground. The 1835 Juliana and the 1885 Tina first hoard and finally burn the opera manuscript, which the men who have betrayed them value most. These are Pyrrhic victories, but the only ones these women have.