When Gianandrea Noseda began his tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra last summer, he became the only leader of an American orchestra who also heads a European opera house. As music director of the Teatro Regio Torino since 2007, he returned there after opening his first season in Washington in October to reach another career milestone by conducting Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for the first time. Rather than face the uncertainties of a new production, he chose to import one he admired, a 2008 staging by Claus Guth from the Zurich Opera House.
When the curtain rose on a spacious bedroom with crimson walls, it was apparent that the production (revived by Arturo Gama) would have a visual elegance absent from many modern stagings, but also that a directorial concept was at work. A woman was sleeping in a double bed, observed by a prosperous-looking man with a top hat. When he approached her, she waved him off and went back to sleep. One could infer that the setting was updated to the time of the opera’s creation (the 1850s), but Tristan’s ship, explicit in the libretto, was nowhere in evidence.
This Tristan takes place on dry land, specifically (one learned with a little help from the program book) near Zurich, at the estate of the merchant Otto Wesendonck and his wife Mathilde. The opera was, in fact, imagined as an episode from Wagner’s biography. Thanks to his role in the 1849 Dresden uprising, Wagner was forced into exile in Switzerland, for a time living in a house on the estate that Otto, who had become a patron, made available.
As work on Tristan progressed, Wagner and Mathilde developed an intense relationship, stimulated by their joint interest in the project. The opera became their symbolic “child.” In the libretto, Tristan brings Isolde to Cornwall to be married to King Marke, but falls in love with his charge along the way. Did life imitate art, with Otto cast as King Marke? Hardly: their relationship remained platonic. Accordingly, the production doesn’t press the analogy too far. Maybe Guth simply thought it clever to have a Zurich setting for a Zurich production. But his approach does make a metaphysical opera that deals in archetypes into a bourgeois, Ibsen-like drama. The results were stimulating, if compromised in matters of detail.
Christian Schmidt’s sumptuous set rotated to reveal other spaces, including a greenhouse and a bedroom in mirror image of the one first seen; here Tristan is found in bed even before he and Isolde drink the love potion. For the Liebesnacht of Act II, the lovers search each other out among wedding-reception guests, eventually commandeering a long dining table. After they are surprised, Marke delivers his monologue of disbelief from a place at the table.
On the debit side, Isolde and her maid Brangäne have a confusing relationship in which Schmidt’s costumes has them looking alike; they even appear to swap roles. Brangäne also has the irritating habit of replicating in sign language events that Isolde describes through narration. Another curiosity occurs when the potion takes hold and Tristan turns a lamp on and off, as if to underscore the opera’s day–night symbolism. Yet once you accept Guth’s approach, you recognize its congruity with the opera’s core drama, which is more than can be said for later stagings by him of German operas, such as Lohengrin (La Scala, 2012) and Fidelio (Salzburg, 2015), in which the hero of each (Jonas Kaufmann) became a neurotic anti-hero. Tristan’s final pages work their transcendent magic, at least until Brangäne breaks the spell by slowly moving off stage. Nobody should care about Brangäne at this point.
Ricarda Merbeth’s Isolde was commanding yet feminine, and generously sung. The scene’s impact owed much to her. At the age of sixty-three, Peter Seiffert remains a sterling Tristan, possessed of stylistic authority and lyrical refinement, but also clarity of tone, even if a high note or two strayed. Michelle Breedt brought to Brangäne a full sound not unlike Merbeth’s in quality, and as Tristan’s vassal Kurvenal, Martin Gantner projected loyalty with firm, resonant sonority. Steven Humes was an articulate, fresh-sounding King Marke.
Given the fiery temperament Noseda brings to Italian opera, one wondered how such an approach might translate to Wagner. (The only other Wagner he had conducted is the early Der fliegende Holländer.) The idea of a red-hot Tristan has its appeal, but it could come at the expense of poetic lyricism and structural logic. It was a harbinger of good things that the Prelude unfolded with steady organic growth. As the opera progressed, Noseda showed a feeling for long-term goals that allowed for, and thrived on, exciting moments without leading to musical imbalances. Tempos were persuasive, a few even on the slow side. The Teatro Regio orchestra played magnificently. Further experience with the score will doubtless lead to further insights. But Noseda’s reading stands tall in the tradition of Italian Tristan conductors and, indeed, those of this very house, including Arturo Toscanini, who led the opera at its Turin premiere in 1897.