Review: A ‘Tristan und Isolde’ Plays Out in Shadows and Light

SANTA FE, N.M. — The play of light has always been part of the show at the Santa Fe Opera: its majestic, open-sided theater in the foothills making drama out of the darkening of the sky and the brightening of the stars, even the flash of a hopefully distant storm.

But in Santa Fe’s admirably understated, lovingly faithful new “Tristan und Isolde,” the summer house’s first Wagner for more than 30 years and its only foray thus far into the composer’s dramas beyond “The Flying Dutchman,” light moves center stage.

Day and night lie at the heart of “Tristan,” the former representing the glaring, intrusive reality from which Tristan and Isolde struggle to escape in their love, the latter their “wondrous realm,” as Tristan sings of it, of freedom, of passion and ultimately of oblivion.

There was a time when that metaphor was treated as at least somewhat expendable; in deference to singers’ stamina, Wagner’s longest disquisition on the philosophical metaphor, in Act II, was traditionally cut.

But the incompatibility of the worlds of light and dark are taken as an organizing principle in Santa Fe’s “Tristan,” with subtle projections by Greg Emetaz that build on smart lighting by John Torres. Co-directed by the hotshots Lisenka Heijboer Castañón and Zack Winokur, it contrasts bright white with pitch black, and often dwells in the shades in between.

The result is filled with striking, poignant images. We meet Tristan as a towering silhouette, for instance, a projection onto which Isolde can fix her grievances; that image finds its echo hours later, as the shadow of absent Isolde paces the walls of Tristan’s hallucinating mind.

Much of the first act takes place in a cramped box of light, as Isolde is entrapped on her voyage to wed King Marke. When she narrates her failure to kill Tristan earlier, to avenge his murder of Morold, her fiancé, spotlights track her as she explores the encroaching murk. Tristan, when he finally deigns to see her, is already in the shadow of night. No potion is necessary for them to fall in love — only to reveal what they both already know.

These kinds of touches are gently allusive, suggesting more of an atmosphere than pretending to some grand interpretation. But that’s the point. Heijboer Castañón, a Dutch-Peruvian director whose credits include assisting Pierre Audi on this opera in Amsterdam, and Winokur, gaining renown as the artistic director of the insurgent American Modern Opera Company, offer something of a welcome to a work that is often treated warily or, ironically, or rendered illegible in impenetrable symbolism.

Heijboer Castañón and Winokur offer no drastic interventions in the plot, just a delicate understanding of it as a tale of intimacies, friendly and erotic alike. What few props exist are lightly used. The spare set, from blueprints by the architecture and design firm Charlap Hyman & Herrero, consists of four angled walls of mottled gray — cutouts evoking a castle tower, say, but no more than evoking it. Carlos J. Soto’s costumes hint at abstraction, rather than declaim distance as a goal.

There is a refreshing feeling of trust to it all, a sensible desire not to get in the way of what clearly remains to these young collaborators a basically human story — and a willingness, perhaps above all, to make space for the music.

And why not?

James Gaffigan, typically lively on the podium for what is his first run of a full Wagner opera, sparked up a feisty intensity that supplied the energy the staging tended to resist, pushing the drama hard but not harshly. His was a take on the score both muscular and swift, blessedly so for a show that ended well after midnight.

Greater experience might bring more deliberate harmonic and thematic direction, perhaps more purpose to transitions and more of a willingness to linger, just as making Wagner a habit rather than an exception here might, in time, sand down some of the rougher edges of the orchestra’s playing. Either way, the signs are promising for Gaffigan, who takes charge of the Komische Oper in Berlin next year.

Never mind the future when it comes to the soprano Tamara Wilson. Renowned as a Verdian, she is slated to sing Elsa in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Lohengrin” next spring and Sieglinde in Vienna shortly thereafter; this Isolde, amply powerful yet ideally precise with the text, confirmed her as quite the Wagnerian already.

Cornered, angry, spiteful, fearful, anxious, excited, enraptured, serene, each in turn — Wilson’s portrayal, like that of Jamie Barton’s magnificent Brangäne, was as authoritatively acted as it was movingly sung, an embodiment of the role in a production that fixed relentless attention on its principals.

Simon O’Neill, a ponderous stage presence, suffered from that unsparing focus in the first two acts; in his third he surpassed himself, but the sharp, compressed quality of his voice still seemed less suited to Tristan than to some of the roles he has taken on in service to Wagner.

The unstinting loudness of Nicholas Brownlee, otherwise a fine Kurwenal and the Dutchman in a David Alden production scheduled for next season here, made O’Neill’s frequent trouble slicing through the orchestra all the more plain; the affecting ease of Eric Owens’s King Marke likewise pointed up the tenor’s stilted, self-conscious delivery.

But with Wilson dominating it by force of voice and clarity of personality, this is a “Tristan” that anyway seems rightly to imply — for it insists on nothing — that it should be “Isolde” to which we shorten the name of this singular work. And it is to Isolde that the final coup is reserved; as the music of her transfiguration resolves, the set’s walls open for Wilson to stride calmly to the back of the theater, and into the night.

Tristan und Isolde

Through Aug. 23 at Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico;

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