A most wondrous miracle occurred in a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde on Sunday at the Severance Hall of Cleveland. Nina Stemme sang a magnificent Irish Princess, clad in green; her performance this afternoon was the definitive kind of which opera fans dream.  She had help: a beautiful art deco hall with its intimate and resonant acoustics, a solid partner who rose to the occasion, an excellent ensemble of supporting singers. It was above all a love-fest between Stemme and the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. When Stemme capped her splendid Liebestod with a soft pianissimo and the English horn sounded the final conclusive notes, the audience respected the conductor’s wish to hold silence. Only when he lowered his arms after prolonged hush did the hall erupt in ecstatic ovation. It was the performance of a lifetime. 

Welser-Möst’s approach to Richard Wagner’s revolutionary opera was straightforward; no lingering over harmonies and chords that seem to lead nowhere; no exaggerated pause to create dramatic effects. He emphasized transparency and litheness of the score; the music flowed in a continuous, seamless and gorgeous waves. When the enigmatic “Tristan Chord” at the beginning of prelude was resolved several hours later, there was a sense of a journey coming to an end, not so much a relief as a regret of the end of a dream. We could have embarked on the journey all over again.

What Welser-Möst brought to the score that was revelatory was his tempo variation. He preferred fast but unhurried tempo in Act 1, including the prelude. At the very end of Act 1, as the chorus of men joined the orchestra to celebrate King Marke and Cornwall, the tempo became breakneck. These last moments were thrilling, with the Cleveland Orchestra strings players racing with exaggerated speed and precision. The brisk tempo continued early in Act 2. It was only when Tristan and Isolde began their extended (uncut) love duet that the music slowed down; the contrast then of “day” and “night” became stark and dramatic. The lovers’ endless and unrequited longing for one another and for death was presented as an antithesis of the mandate world; the slow and plaintive melodies floated timeless and mid-air.

The slow tempo began Act 3, starting with the prelude depicting the absolute despair and dissolution of Tristan. The music traced his mental and physical disintegration with relentless persistence, until it finally reached its resolution with the most sublime rendition of the Liebestod I have ever experienced. Stemme began from the edge of the raised platform as if to whisper a secret to the audience, and as the music rose in volume and intensity, she rose with and above it, her voice never wavering but blooming with ease, taking us to the end of the journey.

Stemme was in command throughout the afternoon, with her voice showing a remarkable variety of colors to negotiate a wide range of the role. In Act 1, she almost seemed to lead the music, as she varied her vocal color and intensity to express the complexity and chromaticism of the score. Her leadership continued in Act 2, with her low and middle voice rich and expressive. Okka von der Damerau, singing Isolde’s companion Brangäne, excelled with her warm and clear mezzo that blended with Stemme’s more complex timbre. The love duet and its aftermath, with Welser-Möst racing again to conclude the act, were devastating in their emotional intensity.

Gerhard Siegel, an experienced Wagnerian, rose to the challenge of one of the most demanding tenor roles of Tristan. His voice had remarkable agility, brightness and focus; his diction remained clear even when he was singing Tristan’s high notes. He had good stamina to portray Tristan’s agony and ecstasy in the act with frightening intensity. Yet at times his singing was also elegant and lyrical; he never resorted to loud shouting. Besides Ms von der Damerau’s exemplary Brangäne, Ain Anger as King Make and Alan Held as Kurwenal were essential contributors to the afternoon’s success. Mr Anger’s strong booming bass fitted the solid and remorseful character of the king, while Mr Held showed off his long Wagnerian career, singing Tristan’s loyal friend Kurwenal with nuance, sympathy, and gestures. One of the remarkable achievements of this Tristan was how each singer could portray and convey his/her character and mutual relationships by simple gestures, glances, and movements.  No elaborate staging or props were necessary. The men and women of the Cleveland Orchestra demonstrated with their exquisite, accurate, and stylish playing that they deserve to be called the best American orchestra. Off-stage men’s chorus made a powerful impression. 

Above all, however, I will long remember this performance as the best live Tristan und Isolde of my life, with Nina Stemme’s near perfect, complete, magnificent and emotionally wrenching Isolde.