White Light Festival 2019 Review: Tristan und Isolde, Act 2

Christine Goerke Makes A Solid Debut, But Günther Groissböck Steals The Show Amidst Balance Issues

By David Salazar

In simplified terms, Wagner’s music, especially in “Tristan und Isolde,” can be visually compared to a continuous stream of waves coming and going, each growing in size and power, exploding, and then receding back to where they came from. In the best performances, a singer rides these orchestral waves of sound, the voice standing above the music, but also impossible to detach from its cohesive beauty.

In the recent performance of Act two from “Tristan und Isolde” at the White Light Festival, there was no such harmony between surfer and tidal wave or singer and music. Instead, it often felt like the tidal waves of sound were so big that there was simply no way for the singer to manage to get on top of it; instead, they were often submerged under its massive weight.

Balance Issues

Part of this is undeniably a result of the setup. Even with the singers placed in front of the National Symphony Orchestra, there is no denying that when Wagner unleashes the massive ensemble in his greatest opera, it is unlike almost anything ever written. The climax of the love duet that is broken up by a painful dissonance that leads into the third Act is arguably the greatest such example of this. And on this afternoon performance, that moment was a testament of how unfair this setup was to its soloists, drowning their voices out under a tidal wave of ever-growing sound.

And it didn’t necessarily have to be a massive crescendo to feel unbalanced or unfocused; maestro Gianandrea Noseda seemed intent on supporting his singers as best as he could, bringing the dense orchestration down to support them in quieter sections. But often, it created a sea of aural mush all over the place instead of a clean tapestry of sound with a wide range of colors.

One might be quick to point fingers at the maestro’s lack of control, but this could not be further from the truth.

In many sections, particularly the softest ones, his way with the orchestra was beyond reproach. Interpretatively, he managed a solid ebb and flow with his tempi; this contrast can be best summarized with the opening and close of the love scene. The transition between the first two scenes scurried along, building with its speed and sound toward an explosive moment of release; this was furthered by the polished syncopations, and the angst-ridden cello lines building fluidly into the violin’s aching repetitions.

But the end of the love scene was decidedly opposite in its approach. The score calls for “Immer etwas drängend” all the way to the Sehr schnell that opens the third scene, but Noseda’s tempo shifts forward were very slight and instead felt rather dragged out. One might state that his tempo in this passage was where most conductors are when they interpret the “Liebestod,” less propulsive and more expansive.  This no doubt had an impact on the singers.

In other sections, Noseda was spotless, particularly in Marke’s monologue, where the plaintive bass-clarinet solo monologue rung out beautifully into the auditorium, the light orchestrations throughout this section present. Noseda seemed to yield greater freedom to his Marke, Günther Groissböck, as well, giving the scene greater dramatic intensity.

But the balance issues in the orchestra weren’t always quite so clean, particularly in denser moments.

Balance issues are not new to David Geffen Hall, especially depending on where you sit. Brass instruments, at their loudest get the most favorable treatment, as was most apparent throughout the performance. The coda for the second Act features some prominent violin lines that build the melody to its tragic conclusion; the brass section builds tension through a massive crescendo. On this evening, the violins were barely audible, even when blasting out fortissimo chords.

During Brangäne’s “Einsam wachend in der Nacht,” Wagner wrote in two violin obbligato solos; neither were audible beneath the thick orchestral tapestry.

As noted, this aural seesaw would affect all of the soloists to different extents as well.


One of the main attractions of this performance was the very first appearance of Christine Goerke as Isolde. Goerke is one of the most renowned Wagner interpreters in the world and undoubtedly the most popular in New York after her performances of the Ring Cycle last season at the Metropolitan Opera.

Physically, it was a very confident performance with Goerke immersed not only in creating the portrait of a confident woman full of passion, but constantly responding to her stage partners. To Brangäne’s nervous warnings, she responded with a calm and collected retort, though her proclamations to “Lösche des Lichtes letzten Schein” were far more direct and forceful. In her duet with Tristan she seemed to calm down even more, showing warm chemistry with Stephen Gould as the two melted into one another’s eyes early on, their hands touching. It was fascinating to see them withhold the kiss for most of the duet, adding to the tension and giving that special moment a great sense of payoff.

When Marke entered, Goerke sat in the chair to the conductor’s right, but she remained invested in creating Isolde’s sense of guilt. At the close of the act, she stood up and looked on lovingly at Gould as she sang the gentle “Als für ein fremdes Land.” As the act drew to a close she held him in an embrace that left the performance on a painful but tender note.

Vocally, it was perhaps not quite as confident an evening. Of course, this was her first real at-bat with the role and there were the aforementioned balance issues, but it was clear that her voice was a bit overpowered in lower and middle areas and creaky in the upper limits where she continually would go flat. This was first noticeable during two sustained G naturals on “Lösches des Lichtes Letzten Schein,” “lösche den scheuchenden Schein,” and “Laß meinen Liebsten ein;” by contrast an F sharp in that passage was on firmer ground. Throughout the evening, ascensions into the upper reaches of her voices showcased similar difficulty, including the incredible climactic rise to a high A natural on “daß hellsie dorten leuchte” and the high B flat and C natural during the opening exchanges between Tristan and Isolde. This was only exacerbated by a wider vibrato on these higher notes.

The intonation situation was consistent for most of the performance, though as the Act wore on, the soprano’s vibrato not only grew tauter in the upper reaches, but her overall sound exhibited greater strength and confidence, particularly in the duet with Gould. There were some truly wonderful moments from Goerke here, especially during the glorious “O sink’ hernieder Nacht” where the two voices were truly engaged in blending together, their phrasing creating that sense of not only harmonic unity, but also musical and spiritual. They built up to a glorious fortissimo at the apex of the phrase, undeniably their most gorgeous vocal moment together.

It must also be recognized that during the great climax of the lengthy duet, Goerke gave her all alongside Gould, despite the fact that the orchestra’s massive crescendo was insurmountable for any singer.

By the end of the Act, Goerke delivered her very best moment with “Als für ein fremdes Land,” her voice gentle and subdued on those opening E naturals, imbuing a sense of clarity and purity of her faithfulness to Tristan. She built up to a gorgeous F natural on “Wo Tristans Haus und Heim, da Kehr’Isolde ein,” the emphatic G flat on “folge treu” almost a doubling down on her sense of resolve.

While the vocal blemishes cannot be overlooked, it will be far more interesting to see how Goerke brings Isolde to life in a full-fleshed production where her potent stage presence will be allowed to flourish fully.



Tristan & Brangäne

As Tristan, Stephen Gould seemed to energize Goerke’s performance and his assuredness in the upper range was evident from the start with a ringing G natural on “Geliebte!” His highs never flagged, and as noted, seemed to inspire Goerke to her finest singing, especially when they were paired.

His was a muscular performance, especially during the lengthy dialogues about “Das Licht,” where his singing was full of forceful intensity. Gradually, his sound eased to the heavenly phrases of “O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe” before revving up to the climax. As with Goerke the orchestra’s biggest crescendos overpowered him and there were instances, particularly toward the end of the duet, where his high notes started to wear down, losing their bright ping.

But as with Goerke, his finest moment came at the close of the Act with “Wohin nun Tristan scheidet, willst du, Isold’, ihm folgen,” the tenor turning to his beloved and singing with the most gentle of piano sounds. His voice was but a delicate thread and you felt that in this most dramatic of moments, he was whispering tenderly to his lover. It was undeniably the most spell-binding moment for the tenor on the evening and it contrasted beautifully with his final section, in which he turned to blast Melot’s treachery.

“Mein Freund war der, er minnte mich hoch und teuer” was Gould at his fiercest, the G naturals littered throughout the passage given forceful attacks with the final A natural on “Melot” equally bright and aggressive.

As Brangäne, Ekaterina Gubanova displayed tremendous vocal security and presence in her first scene with Goerke and in her heavenly appearance during the duet. In the former, she sculpted her phrasing quite diligently, her soft singing during “Was mir ihn verdächtig, macht dir ihn teuer! Von Tristan zu Marke ist Melots Weg” emphasizing the unease that her character felt toward Isolde’s situation. Like Goerke, Gubanova was attentive to her stage partner, the two playing off one another throughout the exchange to strong dramatic effect.

But Gubanova’s greatest moment came at the apex of the duet, “Einsam wachend in der Nacht.” Standing all the way behind the orchestra and off to the side, she managed to truly ride the wave in this instance, her voice expanding over what amounts to lengthy whole notes throughout her middle range. Each one of these notes soared, blossoming into the next one with the final F sharp on “Habet acht” dimuendoing gracefully into the final C sharp on “Bald entweicht die Nacht.”

Pain, Fury, Bitterness

Günther Groissböck probably stole the show, as most King Markes tend to do during their big moment in Act two. Without taking away from the other artists, his was undeniably the most refined interpretation with every phrase full of intention and tremendous emotion; it was impossible not to be completely under the spell of his pained monologue which was full of fury, anguish, and torment. His first retort to Melot, “Tatest du’s wirklich? Wähnst du das,” was fierce in its attack, shutting down the other’s claims to protect the king.

From there, his rhetorical questions about losing Tristan’s confidence answered themselves with an increased agitation that blossomed into a gloriously pained crescendo on a high D on “mit feindlichstem Verrat!” The ensuing phrase, “Trog mich Tristan, sollt’ ich hoffen” featured a gradual easing of the voice, only for a forceful accent on the final “bewahrt” imbuing the sadness with a tinge of bitterness. That only grew even stronger during “Wohin nun Treue, da Tristan mich betrog,” the gentle, pleading line turning sour with an angry accent on the final “betrog.” Throughout the passage you got a sense of King Marke’s subdued rage suddenly coming to the fore, only to be restrained behind his pained love for the traitors.

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the entire monologue came at its climax as Marke directs his attention to his bride. You could feel the tension in his voice rise throughout, but he managed to sustain a purity of line that emphasized Marke’s benevolence as a ruler and a man. Ultimately, he built up his voice to a powerful fortissimo on “Die kein Himmel erlöst, warum mir diese Höll” though it was in this instance where the orchestra’s tidal wave of sound also washed him out, the payoff of his emotional crescendo coming up a bit short.

However, that could not detract from what was an awe-inspiring bit of interpretation, every phrase, word, and vocal gesture penetrating emotionally and psychologically. Few singers have managed such a polished yet imaginative reading of this particular monologue in recent memory.

As Melot, Neal Cooper was aggressive in his few interventions. Hunter Enoch made a very brief cameo as Kurwenal. Regrettably, his “Rette dich, Tristan” was barely audible amidst the tumult in the orchestra.

On the whole, this was a performance that featured some truly amazing moments of immersive dramatic music-making, balance issues withstanding. This opera is so glorious that even on a night where all the elements don’t work fully, it remains an unforgettable experience.


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