Stemme shines as Isolde in Wagner's love story
In this picture provided by the Vienna State Opera Peter Seiffert in the role of Tristan and Nina Stemme as Isolde, from left, perform during a dress rehearsal for Richard Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde" at the state opera in Vienna, Austria, Monday, June 3, 2013. Premiere was on Thursday, June 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Wiener Staatsoper, Michael Poehn)
VIENNA (AP) — Can watching two people suffer for four hours be enjoyable? The Vienna State Opera makes it happen with its new production of "Tristan and Isolde."
Richard Wagner's ultimate love story of tragic passion, deceit and death often ends up as an evening of tedium, or worse, kitsch. But with thoughtful directing, some wonderful voices and staging that doesn't fight the story, the version that premiered Thursday is a winner.
It's not easy to overcome the hurdles standing in the way of a successful production.
There is little action, with the scenery alternating between a ship's deck, a garden and a linden tree, in Wagner's original. What's more, the stage is dominated by only two characters, the star-crossed lovers. The four other principals make only brief appearances.
In this picture provided by the Vienna State Opera Stephen Milling in the role of King Marke performs during a dress rehearsal for Richard Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde" at the state opera in Vienna, Austria, Monday, June 3, 2013. Premiere was on Thursday, June 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Wiener Staatsoper, Michael Poehn)
For the audience, the unintentional result is often "sleep without awakening," to lift a phrase in another context from Wagner himself.
Not on Thursday though. The hugest kudos go to Nina Stemme as Isolde, the proud medieval Irish princess, whose initial hatred of the conquering hero from England is eclipsed only by the subsequent love that consumes both until eternal union in death.
The part calls for a voice that can soar above the orchestra one moment to diminish into a barely heard sung whisper the next. Stemme met the challenge and then some, with rich texture, masterly vocal control and seeming lack of effort that belied the difficulties of the role.
Her acting also was superb. From the first histrionics of a proud noblewoman who feels abducted by the enemy to the poignant final moment where she is joined inseparably with Tristan, she is capable of making the character believable — no easy task for an audience far removed from the Romantic era of the late 19th century.