Sometimes you want just an act of a Wagner opera rather than the whole thing. There are two acts you sometimes hear in concert: Act I of Die Walküre, the second Ring opera; and Act II of Tristan und Isolde. (Sometimes you hear all of Das Rheingold—the first Ring opera—come to think of it.)
I recall a Tristan Act II in the 2001–2 season. The orchestra was the New York Philharmonic, led by Kurt Masur. The Isolde was Deborah Voigt—who set an example of Wagner singing for all time. I hope that her performance back then exists on tape somewhere (or whatever the modern equivalent of tape is).
When the Philharmonic did this, Google reminds me, the concert began the way the opera does: with the Prelude to Act I. Then there was Act II—then the Prelude to Act III, followed by the Liebestod. That makes for a good, full concert.
Yesterday in David Geffen Hall, we had Act II, alone—which also makes for a good concert (and a nicely brief one, about an hour and twenty minutes). The concert was an event in the White Light Festival. The orchestra was the National Symphony Orchestra, from Washington, D.C., led by its music director, Gianandrea Noseda.
When the opera began—or rather, Act II began—I had two thoughts, immediately. The first related to tempo. It was nicely undawdling. The orchestra played with abandon, reflecting the tumult of the moment (as the story unfolds). The music was charged. And the second thought related to sound.
This critic had spent Friday and Saturday nights listening to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. So, that was no fair to the NSO, playing in David Geffen on Sunday afternoon. The ear, which had been spoiled on consecutive nights, had to adjust.
Throughout Act II, Maestro Noseda conducted with intelligence and heart, which makes a Wagner conductor (and, indeed, a conductor).
Singing Isolde was one of the outstanding Wagner sopranos of today, Christine Goerke. She has power and beauty, those requirements for a Wagner soprano. Loud lyricism, as we might term it, is hard to find. Goerke had some shaky high notes yesterday, but she was gratifying overall.
So was her tenor, her Tristan, Stephen Gould. His bio says that he “continues to be one of the most sought-after tenors in the opera world today.” On one hand, this is publicist’s nonsense. On the other, it has a point. Tristans are as scarce as hen’s teeth—and Gould is a good tooth.
His voice was huge and handsome. There was virtually no barking or bellowing. Many of Wagner’s notes were approximate, however—in the ballpark rather than dead-on.
You can’t leave out Brangäne, Isolde’s maid, in this act. She was Ekaterina Gubanova, who sang the same role at the Metropolitan Opera three seasons ago. In my review, I said that she was “solid, gleaming, and smooth.” So she was yesterday.
You can’t leave out King Mark, either, for it is in this act—Act II—that he has his great monologue. Doing the honors yesterday was Günther Groissböck, the Austrian bass, who will soon sing his signature role, Baron Ochs, from Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, at the Met. Having heard him many times, I was worried that Groissböck would not have enough low for Mark—enough of a lower register. He did. And he intoned his part with an expected elegance.
So, this was a nice dollop of Wagner in David Geffen Hall. Was it intoxicating, enrapturing, as it might be? That depended on the listener, I think—his receptivity. I can say that the audience responded with rapturous applause.
Let me end with a strange and personal footnote, please. At one point, I thought, “Ah—that’s where I had to flip the cassette.” At one time in my life—many years ago—I listened to Tristan quite a bit on audiocassette. Must have been Flagstad, Suthaus, and Furtwängler. At a certain juncture of the love duet, I had to flip the cassette.
And that stood out to me, honkingly, yesterday. Funny how these things are ingrained.