The Washington National Opera is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth by opening its 2013-2014 season with the composer’s powerful “Tristan and Isolde.”
The occasion is doubly important because it once again pairs soprano Deborah Voigt and the company’s music director, Philippe Auguin, who collaborated in 2010 on the blockbuster production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” that marked Miss Voigt’s company debut and the official start of Mr. Auguin’s tenure.
Based on a Celtic love story that may have predated and inspired the tale of King Arthur, Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, “Tristan and Isolde” has been repeated in medieval versions in a variety of languages.
“When you have the privilege to bring this opera to life, it’s important to know how the composer incorporated the early literature,” Mr. Auguin said. “When I prepare a work the way I want to, it becomes like a person, somebody you know that is organic, like a human body. All masterworks become part of a conductor’s self, a construction that is intellectual, aesthetic and operatic.
“I have spent years studying and conducting Richard Wagner’s operas. The first one I was hired to conduct was ‘Lohengrin,’ and since then I have conducted all his major works in Germany several times. You cannot conduct his music if you have not read the text from many sources, among them the German medieval and the French versions. I have to know what he wanted to put into the story, and that requires a complete education.
“Because a conductor has to combine so many aspects of art, he must use his brain. This is a different brain than the one you need for language. I’ve conducted 25 different operas in my life and regard ‘Tristan and Isolde’ as a utopia and a fantasy of the human spirit. It incorporates history, language, and even new instruments that Wagner had created especially for him. Everything looks different when you know what Wagner wanted. He wrote his own librettos. I’m convinced he wanted to write the medieval prologue written by Gottfried von Strassburg to emphasize his dedication to the ‘Tristan and Isolde’ characters and the drama about to unfold.
“The girl must leave behind the materialism of the world to find true love. At the end, the higher reality is that God is present everywhere. I conduct the music to match the emotions. For example, in Act 2, Isolde is warned that she must be aware of a jealous one. Later, Tristan is searching for Isolde and asks his friend to return with a white flag if he is bringing her back and a black flag if he is not. His jealous wife tells his friend to put up a black flag, so each lover thinks the other is dead. Each reaction is reflected in the music.”
Mr. Auguin’s broad repertoire ranges from early music and major operas to the complete symphonic works of Gustav Mahler and such contemporary composers as Hans Werner Henze, Peter Maxwell Davies and Pierre Boulez. In October, he travels to Tokyo to lead the NHK symphony that he terms “the best in Japan” in works by Wagner. That celebration of the composer’s bicentennial will feature opera overtures and excerpts.
As the music director of both WNO and Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice, Mr. Auguin’s busy season also includes numerous concerts in Nice, along with return visits to the Metropolitan Opera and Vienna Staastsoper. He returns to WNO in May for “Die Zauberflote” (The Magic Flute).
“Whatever I am conducting, I am directing the music to every single person in the audience,” he said. “In ‘Tristan and Isolde,’ Wagner creates effects and music to bring us into another dimension of feeling and understanding the world. His vehicle is organized in a very democratic, unconventional and superior way to take you to the heights.”
WHAT: Washington National Opera presents Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” starring soprano Deborah Voigt. (Free Q&A following the matinee performance Sunday.)
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F Street, NW
WHEN: Sept. 15-27
PHONE: 202/467-4600, 800/444-1324