Review: A Praiseworthy New Mexico “Tristan und Isolde” – Santa Fe Opera, August 5, 2022

Simon O’Neill’s Tristan and Tamara Wilson’s Isolde

In the first 64 years of its 65-year history, the Santa Fe Opera had never presented any of the three-act operas of German composer Richard Wagner. (These three-act operas comprise eight of the ten Wagner operas in opera’s standard repertory, excepting only “The Flying Dutchman”, last performed 34 years ago, and “Das Rheingold”, never performed in Santa Fe.) This changed in the company’s 2022 season, with a brilliant performance of “Tristan und Isolde”, conducted by New York Maestro James Gaffigan and starring New Zealand heldentenor Simon O’Neill and Texas dramatic soprano Tamara Wilson,

Both O’Neill and Wilson brought voices of power and stamina to their roles, each among the most demanding in opera. Together, they sang the second act liebesnacht beautifully – a convincing portrayal of deep, although perilous, commitment to one another.

Each artist had extensive passages of the long opera to highlight their vocal gifts. I was particularly impressed with O’Neill’s dominant presence in the third act as the dying Tristan, followed by Wilson’s superb performance of the opera-ending Liebestod.

[Below: having both consumed a love potion, Tristan (Simon O’Neill, left) and Isolde (Tamara Wilson right) are together for their liebesnacht; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

I have followed O’Neill’s career for over a decade, including his Wagnerian performances at Houston Grand Opera as Lohengrin [Review: Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin” – Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009], Siegmund [Review: Houston “Walküre” Showcases Christine Goerke’s Astonishing Brünnhilde, Karita Mattila’s Stunning Sieglinde – Houston Grand Opera, April 25, 2015] and Siegfried [Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Spectacular “Götterdämmerung”, April 22, 2017

[Below: Simon O’Neill as Tristan; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Although O’Neill is most often associated with the German repertory, he showed his versatility in taking on the Italian repertory’s most demanding tenor role [Review: O’Neill, Pérez and Vratogna Impressive in Houston Grand Opera’s “Otello” – November 1, 2014] and the role of Mao Tse-Tung in English in a contemporary opera [Review: 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera, June 8, 2012.]

[Below: Tamara Wilson as Isolde; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

My early introduction to Tamara Wilson was at the Houston Grand Opera in two of the major Verdi soprano roles, Amelia [Review: Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo” – Houston Grand Opera, November 2, 2007] and Elisabetta di Valois [Review: Brandon Jovanovich Triumphant in Historic “Don Carlos” Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 13, 2012]. I saw her also as Mrs. Jessel in performances of Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” both in Houston and at the Los Angeles Opera.

In my comments on those performances a decade and decade and a half ago, I noted that she appeared to be on the road to a major career in Verdi’s dramatic soprano roles. Subsequently she was recognized with the 2016 Richard Tucker Award and has sung lead soprano roles in operas of Wagner, Verdi, Mozart and RIchard Strauss with major companies throughout the world. Even so, her Santa Fe Opera performance as Isolde exceeded my high expectations.

Jamie Barton’s Brangaene

Georgia mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton brought a warm, rich voice and expressive acting to the role of Isolde’s servant, Brangaene, a character responsible for a decision of central importance to the opera. Trained in the magical arts, it was Brangaene’s very human, heartfelt choice – to substitute a love potion for the poisonus drink she was commanded to brew for her mistress and Tristan – that caused the fates of all the characters in the opera to be forever changed.

[Below: Jamie Barton as Brangaene; edited image; based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Barton is a versatile artist with strong credentials in Wagner [Review: Francesca Zambello’s Iconic “Walküre” – San Francisco Opera, June 20, 2018] , and Verdi [Review: “Don Carlo” – Washington National Opera’s World Class Verdi Singing, March 14, 2018]. Additionally she is adept at bel canto operas [Review: Jamie Barton, a Phenomenon in “La Favorite” – Houston Grand Opera, January 24, 2020 and Review: World’s Best Ever “Roberto Devereux” Performance: Radvanovsky, Thomas, Barton, Frizza – San Francisco Opera, September 8, 2018 and Review: Meade, Barton, Thomas, Robinson Sing Beautifully in “Norma” – Los Angeles Opera, November 21, 2015] and contemporary works [Review: Mulligan, Barton, Zambello, Paiement Make the Case for “The Crucible” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 5, 2016].

Eric Owens’ King Marke

Pennsylvania baritone Eric Owens, in a sympathetic portrayal of Isolde’s royal fiancé, elicted a vocally expressive, secure baritone. Owens’ regal presence and sonorous voice lent authority to his performance.

[Below: Eric Owens as King Marke; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown phtograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Owens is another versatile artist with strong roots in Wagner, including Wotan [Review: Chicago’s Imaginative New “Walküre”: Goerke, Owens, Jovanovich, Strid Excel – Lyric Opera, November 30, 2017 and Review: Explosive Ovations for Chicago’s Spectacular New “Siegfried” – Lyric Opera, November 3, 2018] and the Dutchman [Review: Fair Weather and a Well-Sung “Flying Dutchman” at Washington National Opera – March 7, 2015.]

Owens’ versatility is shown in other roles, from early Verdi [Review: Gripping Portraits by Eric Owens, Melody Moore in Anne Bogart’s Staging of Verdi’s “Macbeth” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 17, 2015} to Weill [Review: Eric Owens is Vocally Powerful, Dramatic and Emotional in Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 22, 2012] and Gershwin [Review: Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell Lead Powerful “Porgy and Bess” at San Francisco Opera, June 21, 2009].

[See my interview with the artist: Rising Stars – An Interview with Eric Owens].

Nicholas Brownlee’s Kurwenal

Alabama bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee was affecting in the role of Tristan’s close friend, Kurwenal. At Tristan’s side throughout the opera, it is only Kurwenal who is with Tristan the entire time from the second act moment of Tristan’s fatal wound at the hands of Melot, to Tristan’s death.

Brownlee, a 2014 and 2015 Santa Fe Opera Apprentice, has emerged as another “early career” opera star, giving a profoundly emotional vocal performance as caregiver to his dying friend in the opera’s final act.

[Below: Kurwenal (Nicholas Brownlee, above) embraces his dying friend Tristan (Simon O’Neill, below); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Santa Fe Opera, in recognition of Brownlee’s successes as Kurwenal and as Mozart’s Figaro last season [Review: A Clockwork “Marriage of Figaro” Delights – Santa Fe Opera, July 23, 2021] has announced him as the Dutchman for its 2023 revival of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”.

Eric Taylor’s Melot and Other Cast Members

2022 Santa Fe Opera Apprentices performed the smaller roles. Utah tenor Eric Taylor, in the role of the courtier Melot, avenged King Marke’s honor, although his character ended up dead at opera’s end.

[Below: Eric Taylor as Melot; edited image, based on a Curtis sBrown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

In Act I, Utah tenor Jonah Hoskinss was A Sailor and Virginia baritone Erik Grendahl was a Steersman. In Act III, Ohio tenor Dylan M. Davis was a Shepherd.

Maestro James Gaffigan and Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and Chorus Master Susanne Sheston and the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Choru

The augmented Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, under the direction of New York Maestro James Gaffigan, produced the glorious, sonic splendor that this Wagnerian masterpiece requires.

[Below: Maestro James Gaffigan; edited image of a publicity photograph submitted to teh santa Fe Opera.]

Having observed Gaffigan’s impresssive conducting debuts in both Santa Fe [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Delectable New “Ariadne auf Naxos” – Santa Fe Opera, July 28, 2018] and San Francisco [Review: Francesca Zambello’s Theatrically Compelling “Carmen” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2019, I look forward his further explorations of the operatic repertory.

The Santa Fe Opera Apprentices performed the opera’s choral duties under the leadership of Utah Chorus Master Susanne Sheston.

Zack Winokur’s and Lisenka Heljboer Castañon’s Stage Direction, Charlap Hymen & Herrero’s Scenic Design and Carlos J. Soto’s Costumes

Responsibility fo the opera’s stage direction was shared by Massachusetts director Zack Winokur and Dutch director Lisenka Heljnoer Castañon, obviously working in close collaboration with the scenic designers, Charlap Hymen & Herrero.

For his previous Santa Fe Opera project, I had praised Winokur as the choreographer of a Donizetti opera [Review: Brenda Rae’s Stunning Lucia di Lammermoor – Santa Fe Opera, July 1, 2017].

[Below: Stage director Zack Winokur; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, submitted to the Santa Fe Opera.]

Although the action in “Tristan” moves at a much different pace than dance choreography, Winokur’s and Castañon’s movement of characters throughout the evening were insightful and logical.

[Below: Stage director Lisenka Heijboer Castañon; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, submitted to the Santa Fe Opera.]

The massive sets, created by Charlap Hyman & Herrero, were comprised of solid surfaces of various shapes, that masked openings that would appear as needed to move the storyline.

[Below: Scenic Design Principals Adam Charles Hyman (left) and Andre Herrero, AIA, edited image, based on publicity photographs supplied to the Santa Fe Opera.]

[Below Isolde (Tamara Wilson) stands on steps next to one of the set walls; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

[Below: a scene showing another facet of Charlap Hyman & Herrero’s set designs; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

New York designer Carlos J. Soto created attractive costumes appropriate to Wagner’s story. The production’s lighting was by New York designer John Torres. Projections were created by Washington designer Greg Emetic.


I recommend this “Tristan und Isolde” production to all lovers of Wagnerian opera, and to those who wish to see a respectfully performed production of Wagner’s masterpiece.