Nina Stemme ignites Houston's 'Tristan'
This photo provided by the Houston Grand Opera shows Nina Stemme performing as Isolde in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde. (AP Photo/Houston Grand Opera, Felix Sanchez)
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.
This photo provided by the Houston Grand Opera shows Nina Stemme, left, as Isolde and Ben Heppner as Tristan performing in Houston Grand Opera’s Tristan and Isolde in Houston. (AP Photo/Houston Grand Opera, Felix Sanchez)
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.