Live: NC Opera presents a stripped-down excerpt of Tristan and Isolde | Music

Live: NC Opera presents a stripped-down excerpt of Tristan and Isolde


Is there a contest for most ambitious arts organization in the Triangle? Because I’d like to nominate the North Carolina Opera.

Last Sunday, at Meymandi Concert Hall, the organization performed the Prelude and Act Two of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, an opera with extremely difficult music and two of the most demanding singing roles in the repertoire. It was beautifully executed. The vocal athleticism and committed acting of the two leads—soprano Heidi Melton and tenor Jay Hunter Morris—were captivating, more than making up for the lack of costumes, sets and movement. 

Melton demonstrated amazing power and endurance. When she first began to sing in a duet with Elizabeth Bishop’s maid Brangäne, the strength and clarity of her soprano voice was thrilling. An hour and a half later, and after a 40-minute love duet with Morris, that strength and clarity remained. Morris gave great weight to the tenor singing, always in excellent control in a part that clearly demanded tremendous exertion. The famous love duet included many beautiful moments, with some gorgeous interweaving of the two voices that made me wish Wagner had included more. One favorite bit was Melton singing an ode to the word “and” in “Tristan and Isolde.” It’s a classic opera moment: an extended vocal performance carrying lots of emotion, though the actual words of the libretto aren't about much at all. Melton made it rich.

Both leads are intensely good actors as well, something that’s perhaps not as common in opera singers as it should be. That helped in keeping me interested during a performance with little dramatic action. Their commitment to their roles overrode most of the hesitation I had about seeing a stripped-down concert presentation of something Wagner intended as his first gesamtkunstwerk opera.

The other star, as usual, was the NC Opera orchestra, conducted by Timothy Myers. It used to be possible to call this orchestra underrated, but as word gets out, that’s no longer the case. The performance of the dark, rich opening instrumental Prelude was fascinating. Throughout the opera, both Myers’ tight handling of the orchestra and their responsiveness were impressive, particularly given the limited opportunities many classical musicians have to play operatic Wagner.

“For most folks on that stage, this was probably the most Wagner they’ve ever played,” Myers told me. “And the most difficult Wagner they’ve ever played.”

They rose to the challenge, once again proving there are more excellent classical musicians in the Triangle than only those currently included in the NC Symphony. That said, it's worth noting some interesting crossover: The performers last Sunday included Jimmy Gilmore, retired longtime first clarinetist of the NC Symphony; Martin Sher, the Symphony’s general manager and former violist with the Colorado Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic; Carrie Shull, known locally as much for her collaborations with avant-garde guitarist Eugene Chadbourne and modern music collective Polyorchard as for her classical work; longtime jazz musician Gregg Gelb; Shawn Galvin, the co-founder of New Music Raleigh and many other talented locals. The opera was recorded for broadcast next year on WCPE by Nathaniel Yaffe, a new cellist at the NC Symphony who also runs his own studio. It's a testament to the evolving connections that make NC Opera one of the most central and exciting arts organizations in the area.

It’s very exciting news, then, that Timothy Myers considers last Sunday’s concert a step towards mounting a full Wagner production—complete with sets, costumes, lights and action—here in the Triangle sometime in the next few seasons. In the meantime, NC Opera’s next show in January is a full presentation of a new work about Muhammad Ali. That should pretty much clinch that Most Ambitious title.

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