Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Opera review: Tristan & Isolde at Winspear Opera House in Dallas
Dallas Opera is forging new ground in theatre and in opera.
Tristan & Isolde premiered in Munich on June 10, 1865, and it is truly a masterpiece of the art form. This opera broke new ground within the first few notes for we have what is now called the “Tristan Chord.” While to our modern ears there is nothing necessarily revolutionary to the music or this chord in particular, at the time it was such a break from all musical conventions that Tristan & Isolde is credited as the piece of music that gave birth to modern classical music. This chord creates an aural tension that is not resolved and it is now widely used in modern compositions ranging from jazz to film scores and creates an anticipation in the listener. Wagner doesn’t “resolve” this chord till the very end of the opera, though he hints at it in Act 2. In essence, the music in this opera keeps the audience on edge anticipating what is going to happen next musically. Along with this phenomenal score, the libretto itself is a piece of genius. In fact, Wagner described this opera as a musical drama by using the term "Eine Handlung," which means an “an act,” “drama,” or “plot.”
Besides the musical innovation of this opera, it is also one of the most difficult operas to cast because not many singers are up to the task. The vocal demands are herculean. The conductor has to have the physical stamina to conduct such a demanding score. The director must find a way to make this light-on-plot opera fascinating and compelling. There is no way this opera can be just so-so, because so-so at nearly four and half hours would make this opera abysmal. It must be truly grand and great to keep the audience’s interest for such a length of time. The Dallas Opera has succeeded brilliantly.
Tristan & Isolde is Wagner’s retelling and retooling of the classic tale. Isolde, against her will, is being brought to marry King Marke by Tristan. She hates him for basically kidnapping her from her homeland. Whilst on the ship, she plots, along with her maiden Brangane, to kill herself and Tristan by convincing him to drink a poison that she’ll share with him. She’d rather be dead then be married, and wants to make sure Tristan dies along with her. What is unexpected is that Brangane switches the poison for a love potion that will unite the two. Upon drinking, the two fall in love. Moments afterward she is presented to King Marke so as to marry him.
This is the bulk of the plot and it happens in Act One. But there are still two more acts and about three more hours to go. There are only about 15 minutes of plot developments in those three hours. One would think it would be a bore, but it is not. This opera becomes an examination of the psychology of love. Being in love with what in essence was your enemy brings about a series of emotional ramifications that are fully explored by Wagner. This opera is a psychological mystery about the nature and evolution of love and desire. It poses many questions, answers many, and leaves the audience thrilled, angry, hopeful, delirious, at time even confused, but in the end it satisfies. It is such a monumental piece of art that almost every range of human emotion is explored. The four-plus hours fly by in this opera, it is that enthralling. Any shorter it wouldn’t do the opera justice.
Did I mention that there is really no physical set? It’s mostly 3 props: Act One has a red rope hanging diagonally. In Act Two, a large square platform doubles as a bed. Act Three has part of broken boat.
What this opera has is the brilliant visual projections designed by Elaine J McCarthy with Austin Switser and Vita Tzykum under the direction of stage director Christian Rath. Rath coordinated along with lighting designer Alan Burrett to create a visual design via projections and sliding scrims that were at times literal, metaphorical, and surreal. The night sky and stars are show dramatically as well as the moon; forests appear and disappear; ocean waves lap against the backdrop, run across the stage, and give the illusion of cascading into the orchestra pit. This merger between technology and stage design was first done during the opera Moby Dick. This go around, it has been elevated to a level that makes the need for a physical set superfluous. The images not only create the space but also reflect the psychology of the characters and become visual expressions of the score simultaneously.
To describe this new technique in theatre is nearly impossible. It has to be seen and experienced to fully comprehend it. If this is the new direction for stage design, I welcome it. It gives the director and the designer the ability to create anything conceivable. You want to see the stage explode in a fireball? It can be done, and it does happen in Tristan & Isolde.
To be able to work such a technological complexity into a production requires the imagination and the acute staging of a master director, and Rath truly comprehends the power of this new technology. There wasn’t one false moment in staging. It also requires him to push his performers to a level of performance that can compete with this visual wizardry, and the performances given by the singers were stunning. Regardless of the spectacle, for us to be satisfied with this this opera, we must emotionally connect. This is perhaps some of the best acting I’ve seen on this stage. The entire cast is flawless.
Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet as Isolde hits all the right notes, vocally and emotionally. She’s voluble, passionate, and must go from the height of anger, to rapture, to the despair of sadness. Her Isolde is palpable. Near the end, she’s overwhelmed by the orchestra, but that isn’t her fault; the score as Wagner wrote it makes it impossible to be louder than the full swell of instruments. But it doesn’t matter, she is being drowned out musically, and at that moment visually by the waves on stage.
Clifton Forbis as Tristan is not your typically handsome or dashing male lover. He is a man caught in a web of emotion that he can’t explain. He is so real and true to his role that his anguish to see Isolde is devastating. He has a very prolonged solo in Act Three, and his voice never waivers. Very few men can perform this role and do it justice, and he succeeds brilliantly.
King Marke is played by Kristinn Sigmundsson. The story line prepares us to hate this man, but his performance delivers what Wagner intended: surprise us with empathy. When he discovers that Isolde has been unfaithful to him with Tristan, his hurt at being betrayed brings a heavy realization to the audience: He, too, is a victim of circumstance. His humanity and his ache over the betrayal turned the table on the audience and we begin to question the allegiance to the hope we had as an audience for the couple that something could be worked out. His character is so nuanced and real; it isn’t just delivered by his acting but through his masterful use of his voice.
Mary Phillips as Brangane, Isolde’s Maiden, brings psychological insight to her role that is startling. It would naturally be assumed that she switched the poison for the love potion so as to prevent her queen from dying. But the way she portrays the motivation of her character is unexpected: She was in love with her queen, and wanted to see her live, even if that meant she could no longer be with her. Was this Wagner’s intention or did he inadvertently imply this and it has been overlooked by other presentations of this opera? No way to tell, but it was a brilliant choice for it made their entire relationship much more complex, and in the end much more satisfying.
Jukka Rasilainen plays Kurvenal, one of the Tristan’s retainers with a compelling edge. Is his loyalty to Tristan that of a friend or something more? Does he wish to be like Tristan and be loved by Isolde? Is he jealous of his love for her? Where does the line of friendship end and cross over to the line of obsession? All of this is explored and more in his performance. Vocally he is also stunning.
Stephen Gadd as Melot gives us also a complex character that fascinates. He could easily be played as a villain since he eventually mortally wounds Tristan. Gadd gives his character such resonance that his motive in doing so is fully realized. Vocally, he too commands the stage.
Aaron Blake as the Young Sailor and later a Shepherd has a beautiful voice and does justice to the lush score of Wagner. Quincy Roberts as the Helmsman delivers his part quite well.
Grame Jenkins conducts this Wagnerian score with such a passion that it at times literally explodes from the orchestra pit and shakes the entire building. At other times he guides the orchestra with such delicacy that even moments of silence in the score become significant. He truly understands Wagner, and his mastery of the material is triumphant.
If there is one area that this production faltered, it was in the costuming. Because this is basically a fairy tale done on a grand scale and the opera isn’t set in a particular place in time, I got the concept behind Susan Cox’s costumes which mixed periods and styles. She wanted to make the piece look timeless by mixing eras: Some costumes looked medieval, others 20th century fascist. But her attempt in making the piece transcend jarred. Not sure what the answer would have been, but what was on stage didn’t work well. Everything was so visually stunning and aesthetic that the costuming seemed too serviceable and didn’t capture the grand nature of the rest of the production.
There are only a couple of performances left of Tristan & Isolde. This is an absolute “must attend.” The Dallas Opera is forging new ground in theatre and in opera. This is a production you do not want to miss. Is it worth paying the nearly $200 for the seats I sat in for this opera? Absolutely. But fortunately for us in Dallas, they do have seats as low as $25, and that is a steal for a production of this quality.
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