Of the many opera acts a symphony orchestra could present unstaged, the second act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde reigns supreme. Emotion supersedes action; and with indomitable soprano Christine Goerke as Isolde with the National Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda’s baton, this performance was especially poised to allow audiences to sink into the music’s unequalled, eternal rapture.

Stephen Gould (Tristan) and Christine Goerke (Isolde)
© Scott Suchman

Following the score’s instruction to begin sehr lebhaft, Noseda leapt straight into the second act’s deep Wagnerian romanticism with confident sophistication. Every one of Noseda’s movements has a purpose, as if even a trace of razzle-dazzle showmanship would waste the focus he inspires. Goerke entered shortly after, stage left, shimmering in a cream pink gown, followed by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, in emerald green, singing the role of Brangäne.

Günther Groissböck (King Marke)
© Scott Suchman

With a fast-growing and well-deserved reputation as the leading Wagnerian soprano today, Goerke’s vocal brawn has consistently astonished me, even in some venues with absurdly bad acoustics. It was a wonder, then, that the symphony often overpowered her. With such intuitive direction from Noseda and vocal command from Goerke, the imbalance was as confusing as it was disappointing. Gubanova, delighting with crystalline timbre and technical agility, fared better and communicated a breadth of empathy true to her character.

Christine Goerke (Isolde)
© Scott Suchman

Tenor Stephen Gould, another singer with proven Wagnerian clout, entered with majestic tone and presence. The beloved duet in Scene 2 between Tristan and Isolde (the epic “dein und mein”) was, indeed, one of those quintessentially potent moments in opera that makes one inexplicably burst into tears. If Goerke had been overpowered at first, her two high Cs here re-established her enduring authority. Even at that pitch, her tone is opulent, like settling into a deep velvet. Contrarily, Gould’s initial glamour waned as the act continued, recovering occasional flat notes by sliding ever so slightly up.

Günther Groissböck (King Marke) and Stephen Gould (Tristan)
© ScottSuchman

In this constellation of Wagnerian fascination, some unexpected stars emerged. The middle of the act bares some isolated passages for the double basses that typically roll by – here, the section seized the spotlight, bounding up their fingerboards with impressive zeal as reflected by the purposeful bend of Noseda’s outstretched fingers. More remarkable still, the end of this act when King Marke sings for about fifteen minutes about honour and betrayal generally lands on bored ears after the luxuriant vocal acrobatics Isolde and Tristan achieve. But bass Günther Groissböck marched out and lit that stage on fire with heft, heart and muscle that propelled this one-act performance to its close with esteemed wonder, proving it’s not always love that makes one forget they are living.