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BWW Reviews: HGO's TRISTAN AND ISOLDE is Immaculately Profound, Riveting, and Unforgettable


The 2012-2013 season at Houston Grand Opera (HGO) has been filled with stunning performances of astounding operatic talent; however, their current production of Richard Wagner's TRISTAN AND ISOLDE may be the sparkling gem of this fascinating season. Every aspect of the production gels with perfection, making this production remarkable and truly unforgettable.

TRISTAN AND ISOLDE is set at a time when Ireland and Cornwall are warring against each other. Against this backdrop, Tristan, a knight in the service of King Marke of Cornwall, attempts to mediate a truce between Ireland and Cornwall by convincing Isolde, an Irish princess, to marry King Marke. On the ship to Cornwall, Isolde, who loves Tristan and is angered by his treatment of her, asks her servant Brangäne to prepare a death potion as a drink of atonement for Tristan. Brangäne returns with the drink of atonement, but has secretly put a love potion in it instead. Tristan and Isolde both drink form the cup, and thinking that they are close to death confess their true, heartfelt feelings for one another. In Cornwall, the lovers must keep their illicit and torrid romance a secret, obtaining help from Brangäne and two of Tristan's comrades-in-arms, Kurwenal and Melot. Tragically, their secret affair meets the unfeeling light of day and many lives are lost in the ensuing chaos.

The three act opera, with intermissions, runs for about four and a half hours. That, in and of itself, seems grueling and daunting; however, under the direction of Christof Loy, the lengthy opera is wholly captivating and alluring. The pacing of the opera is superb, and the abundant and gorgeous display of emotions emanating from the stage and orchestra pit serves to enrapture and intrigue the audience for the entire performance. I, like many around me, found myself on the edge of my seat during all three acts because of the way this performance is staged on Johannes Leiacker's impressively moody and austere set.

Johannes Leiacker's almost monochromatic design consists of a steep rake in front of a secondary proscenium, complete with sumptuous maroon curtains that open and close to reveal an elegant and seemingly first empire dining room. The dining room's back wall is white with the architecture sketched in thick black lines and only one of three windows actually has the panes "cut out." The tables are rich, dark wood that often feature fanciful silver candelabras with elegant, white taper candles burning. Yet, Christof Loy has a majority of the performance played on the rake, creating an allure to what is happening behind the curtain. It is as if the audience is watching a performance unfold in the wings of another performance that we are not privy to. This technique invites us to focus on the plot of Richard Wagner's opera while we also anticipate each glimpse of what is happening "on stage" as well. This skillful technique, which works a million times better than my description of it, gives Christof Loy's production a play within a play ambience that electrifies our senses and draws us deeper into Richard Wagner's work.

HGO's conductor, Patrick Summers, is loved by local patrons. His pristine and profound understanding of the lush classical scores always impresses, but Patrick Summers' conducting of Richard Wagner's TRISTAN AND ISOLDE may be his most inspiring work to date. Under the spell of his baton, the orchestra creates such a luxuriant and provocative soundscape that the audience is purposefully and emotionally stirred by Richard Wagner's score in numerous and inexplicable ways. The emotionality and passion that Patrick Summer infuses into his conducting of TRISTAN AND ISOLDE is miraculously divine.

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme is glorious and radiant as Isolde. From the first time she opens her mouth and unleashes her magnificent instrument for the audience to hear, we instantly know that this is her show. Nina Stemme's Isolde is stunningly strong, fiery, and feisty. As she explores and exposes her love for Tristan, the audience swoons because her voice is so captivating and extraordinary that the mere presence of her spirited, graceful, and commanding instrument reaches deep into our souls to speak to our conscious and subconscious. Her rendition of "Er sah' mir in die Augen" in the first act is bold, fierce, and driving like much of her performance in the show, but it is her exquisite, ethereal, and elegant "Mild und leise wie er lächelt" at the end of the third act that cements her stunning performance as the most sensational, endearing, enchanting and evocative portrayals ever to be given by a soprano at HGO. I would even wager that Nina Stemme's illustrious characterization and vocalization of Isolde is one of the best that has ever been or ever will be given.

For this production of TRISTAN AND ISOLDE, HGO cast Ben Heppner, a well-known dramatic tenor that excels in challenging roles. As Tristan he is authoritative and convincing, but his instrument seemed to be impaired in some way (maybe he is ill), lacking the power one would expect from the performance. In spite of this, his tonality was pristine and controlled. Most impressively, the shimmering aura that usually accompanies the tenor instrument is missing in Ben Heppner's Tristan. Instead, there is an atmospherically appropriate depth and dark richness in his voice. Ben Heppner's timbre takes on a philosophical heaviness, perfectly capturing each crestfallen emotion of his Tristan.

Claudia Mahnke's Brangäne mezzo-soprano instrument is resplendent and robust. The power behind her voice is tangible and dynamic. She easily astounds with every note she sings. Mesmerizing throughout the entire performance, she expertly brings Brangäne to exhilarating life. Moreover, Claudia Mahnke's distinguished and notable moments in the first and third act are heartrending and brilliantly intense.

Ryan McKinney's bass-baritone instrument is put to marvelous use as Kurwenal. His efficacious and potent instrument showcases Kurwenal's bravery and admirable loyalty. Alluring in the first and second acts, Ryan McKinney's characterization and vocal performance as Kurwenal is ingeniously dexterous in the third act. His command of his instrument, the power he can put behind his voice, and his perceptive faithfulness to both Tristan and Isolde thoroughly engages the audience and serves to make Kurwenal's death the most tragic in the production.

Kevin Ray proficiently plays the dastardly Melot with a shining and grandiose tenor voice. His betrayal of Tristan and Isolde to earn favor with King Marke breaks the hearts of the audience as much as it does Tristan's.

Christof Fischesser's bass instrument is beguiling and warm, making his King Marke fascinating. Even if the audience wants to dislike him, we can't help but respect the man King Marke is, as he is always fair, charming, and hospitable.

Tenors Jon Kolbert and Scott Quinn, baritone Mark Diamond, and the entire male chorus all do fantastic jobs rounding out the aural landscape of Richard Wagner's daunting and intriguing score. They bring entrancing and magnetic life to the role they play and support the leading cast well.

Lighting Design by Olaf Winter is inspired and highly affective. He uses bright, unadorned hues of pure white and a few warm ambers to create enchanting shadows that hypnotize and fascinate. The stark and harsh lighting scheme works well with the Johannes Leiacker's Set Design, and both provide a perfect mirror to the thematic soul of the Richard Wagner's pulchritudinous score.

Johannes Leiacker's costume design may be the most visually colorful element of the show. He uses a light, pastel green jacket on Nina Stemme's Isolde in the first act. Likewise, Claudia Mahnke's Brangäne wears gray frock that is almost periwinkle, paired with a dark jacket that is so deeply navy in hue that it is almost black. The rest of the costumes, which are mostly attractively modern dinner wear, are crafted in arresting whites and blacks, which makes the red of the stage blood all the more visible and effective in the third act.

HGO's current riveting and tense production of TRISTAN AND ISOLDE is sure to be the talk of Houston. It is a resplendent and powerful performance that will take a lot of courage, effort, and skill to top. With only one opening night performance left in the season (IL TROVATORE, which is being performed in repertory with TRISTAN AND ISOLDE), it is safe bet to wager that this miraculous and compelling production is the best of the 2012-2013 season.

HGO's production of TRITAN AND ISOLDE runs through May 5, 2013. For tickets and more information please visit or call (713) 228 - 6737.

All photos by Felix Sanchez. Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.

Nina Stemme as Isolde in Houston Grand Opera's TRISTAN AND ISOLDE.

Christof Fischesser as King Marke in Houston Grand Opera's TRISTAN AND ISOLDE.

(From left) Ben Heppner as Tristan and Ryan McKinny as Kurwenal in Houston Grand Opera's TRISTAN AND ISOLDE.

Nina Stemme as Isolde and Ben Heppner as Tristan in Houston Grand Opera's TRISTAN AND ISOLDE.

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