Tristan und Isolde

Peter Mark
Virginia Opera Chorus and Orchestra
20 February 2005
Harrison Opera House Norfolk
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanThomas Rolf Truhitte
IsoldeMarjorie Elinor Dix
BrangäneMary Ann Stewart
KurwenalNorman Ford
König MarkeCharles Robert Austin
MelotMichael Daly
Ein junger SeemannDaniel Sneider
Ein HirtDaniel Markham
SteuermannJuan Donyeá Dunn
Classical Singer Magazine

‘Tristan’ at the Virginia Opera

In recent seasons, under Maestro Peter Mark, Virginia Opera has mounted Elektra, Die Walküre, and now, in February of 2005, Tristan und Isolde—and all of these have been quite accurately announced as “Virginia premieres.”

This means doing a lot with a little. The company’s main home, the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, is not huge; furthermore, each production tours to Richmond and to the George Mason University campus in Fairfax. These small houses and long travel itineraries impose constraints on the company’s stable of imaginative directors, notably Lillian Groag, director of the three Virginia premieres so far mentioned. (Also, the company made cuts in “Tristan,” notably in the Act I pre-potion confrontation, in Marke’s utterances, and in the Kurwenal-shepherd dialogue in Act III.)

Ms. Groag’s productions are inventive, yet never self-indulgent or “Eurotrashy.” This “Tristan” was an eye-filling, quasi-representational production. It was colorful, too. Frequent lighting cues bathed the scenes in changing hues and helped keep the production moving forward. For the drinking of the potion, for example, the hero and heroine turned simultaneously upstage as Isolde threw the chalice away and the stage went suddenly ultraviolet.

An ark-like structure represented the hull of the ship in Act I. Covered over to hide its industrial nature, it defined the garden in Act II. In Act III, the girders and rivets of the structure were visible once again, marking the edge of the parapet of Kareol. In Act I, the structure was equipped with oars. In Act III it played host to an outsized boar-hunting spear with blood on the end, an enlarged dream-vision of Melot’s spear on which Tristan willingly impaled himself at the end of Act II.

Groag always has her characters move with verismo naturalness. Given the changing standards of onstage explicitness, a “Tristan” director has to consider carefully how to handle the love duet. In this production, nothing physical is underway until the big interruption, well, interrupts. By that point Tristan has removed Isolde’s white outer mantle, but nothing else. Melot later picks up the mantle and (shades of Gobbi’s Scarpia!) sensuously sniffs it.

Marjorie Elinor Dix was a radiant Isolde, vocally and visually. She has sung at the Met—as the voice of the Falcon in Die Frau ohne Schatten, the Second Maid in Elektra, the Priestess in Aida, and various “Valkyries”—and has covered the Composer in Ariadne, Dido in Les troyens, and Marie in Wozzeck. Her voice is a dark-hued soprano (note the mezzo roles in her cover repertory), arguably in the Flagstad tradition, perhaps more reminiscent of Helga Dernesch in her soprano phase. Though it would be improvident for Dix to try Isolde in larger houses just yet, she was fully up to it at the singer-friendly Harrison.

As Tristan, Thomas Rolf Truhitte, started the Feb. 2 performance with his baritonal heldentenor in full form. He seemed to be using a great deal of mezzo forte in Act II, which I took to be a matter of conserving fuel for Act III. In fact, he was fighting a cold. Understudy Daniel Snyder sang Act III from the pit, and Truhitte lip-synched.

Singing “over” a cold may be a matter of controversy in the vocal-coaching community. The late Met mezzo Nell Rankin once sang Amneris over severe laryngitis, but she was something of a goddess among breath-control techies. I had a chance to talk with Truhitte after the Feb. 2 performance, and he maintains that he could indeed sing over a head cold—but that night, his cords were getting coated, and the battle was a losing one.

On Feb. 4, however, he told Maestro Mark unexpectedly that he was back in form for that night’s performance, and my spies tell me he was indeed. I was back in the audience on Feb. 6, and Truhitte was in full near-Melchiorian splendor, with a voice that was huge and dark yet capable of tenderness. A pupil of Claude Heater, Truhitte has made the move toward the Wagnerian repertory slowly, starting with his well-received Siegmund with Virginia Opera in 2002. Since then, he has sung his first Lohengrin in at Spoleto, his first Parsifal in Genoa, and now his first “Tristan.” He is pacing himself right: from “Tristan” at a smaller house—he’s moving this summer to the more lyrical role of Froh in Das Rheingold at a bigger venue—Seattle’s prestigious annual “Ring” cycle.

As Brangäne, Mary Ann Stewart presented a light-toned mezzo (think Ebe Stignani, or Elisabeth Höngen), which alongside Dix’s dark soprano made for minimum distinction of timbre between heroine and maidservant. But most of Wagner’s mezzo roles are of disputed Fach status anyway. Stewart was a fine actress, as well. Her love for Isolde and outrage at Kurwenal’s insults were tangible. Regrettably, her Act II costume made her look like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. Every Groag production has one detail that doesn’t work, and here it was Brangäne’s Act II mop cap.

Nmon Ford (the first name is pronounced EN-man) gave us a Kurwenal with a strong and appealing, if slightly rough, baritone, and dramatic power to spare. I have never seen Kurwenal’s rejoicing at his imminent chance to kill Melot acted with more exaltation.

As for Melot, the two performances I saw showed considerable growth by Michael Dailey. A young man with a character-tenor voice, he seemed somewhat uncertain on Feb. 2, doing little with the long non-singing stretches with which Wagner has afflicted this pivotal yet almost silent character. On Feb. 6, by contrast, he was in character every second, full of lust and hypocritical outrage.

Charles Robert Austin’s King Marke was a true vocal treat. Though significant cuts were made in his monologue, his warm bass-baritone held the audience. A Wagner Society of Washington award winner and protégé of Thomas Stewart (not to mention a sometime Marine pilot), Austin is moving in the Wotan direction (his repertory already includes Scarpia, as well as bass roles), and we may hope for many more Hotteresque performances from him.

Maestro Mark is justifiably proud of having prepared two full casts, for a full set of covers. The effort paid off Feb. 2, when, as mentioned, tenor Daniel Snyder, who was cast as the off-stage sailor at the beginning of Act I, had to sing Tristan from the pit in Act III. Truhitte will reach Melchiorian glory first, but the lighter-toned Snyder is also worth watching.

As for Mark and the orchestra, they gave us a Böhm-like performance, free of Furtwänglerian lingering. That’s one valid way of presenting “Tristan,” even if it’s not everyone’s favorite (or mine).

Some Norfolkers complain that Maestro Mark is too much the star of his own performances. True, the high placement of his platform does nothing to diminish his tall frame, and he favors wide gestures that no one would call self-effacing. But he also keeps time rigorously—none of the arm-ballet or cloud-tracing that Astrid Varnay complained of when she sang Isolde under Karajan at Bayreuth—and anyway, why shouldn’t Virginia’s very own opera maestro show a little dash and swagger? Virginia is proud of him, and of the company.

David Wagner

The Washington Post

Abbreviated ‘Tristan’ Is Still Long on Passion

Virginia Opera’s worthy traveling caravan pulls into the Center for the Arts at George Mason University this weekend with “Tristan und Isolde,” Richard Wagner’s haunted, shiveringly beautiful rhapsody on the themes of love and death. There will be two performances — tonight at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2.

The company is based in Norfolk, where it presents 20 performances of four operas a year. In 1994, however, by a unanimous vote of the Virginia General Assembly, it was named the “official opera company of the commonwealth of Virginia.” In keeping with that designation, Virginia Opera has been presenting its productions at the Landmark Theater in Richmond and at George Mason — eight performances in each theater per year. While “Tristan” has been presented in the capital area many times — most recently in the Washington National Opera’s much-admired production from 1999 — the current staging is advertised as the opera’s “Virginia premiere.”

“Tristan” has been abridged considerably for Virginia Opera’s production, with some small trims in Act 1 and more substantial cuts in Acts 2 and 3. These bring the opera in at a little less than four hours, including two intermissions. According to Peter Mark, Virginia Opera’s artistic director, the cuts were made in consideration of the two leading singers, who are performing the roles for the first time, and also “for the sake of dramatic pacing for our audiences, who are accustomed to three-hour operas.”

Nobody denies that “Tristan” demands extraordinary stamina, especially from the leading tenor. Even Placido Domingo has always refused to sing the role of Tristan in the opera house (he has just completed recording the work for EMI, but allowed himself long periods of rest between singing bouts). Moreover, a listener who doesn’t know the opera well would have considerable difficulty identifying the seams in Virginia Opera’s patchwork. But Wagner inspires passionate devotion among his most fervent advocates: Purists should consider themselves warned.

Cuts notwithstanding, there is much to admire in this “Tristan.” Mark conducts with a sure and sweeping understanding of the score, and he summons a big orchestra sound from what is only a medium-size ensemble. In Norfolk, where I saw the opera a week and a half ago, he was struggling against obstructive noises from the heating system, which interfered with Wagner’s long periods of silence (and silence has rarely been so carefully “composed” as it is in “Tristan”). He also had to deal with an audience that insisted upon interrupting the opera’s final chords with a shockingly insensitive round of reflexive applause before the last note had died away, handily shattering one of the most profound and hard-won catharses in the repertory.

Thomas Rolf Truhitte, who played Tristan, has a fine, firm tenor voice of considerable heft and amplitude; thankfully, he can sing softly, too, and made much of the rapt, ecstatic urgency of the love duet. It helps that he actually looks the part of a handsome, noble knight; as in Virginia Opera’s production of “Die Walkure” a few years ago, Truhitte spends much of his time partially undressed. Now there’s a new one for the classical marketers — the “Topless Tenor.” Can’t miss.

Truhitte was well matched by Marjorie Elinor Dix’s Isolde. If her voice is somewhat light for the part (necessitating some explosive force in the most strenuous moments), her singing generally has a fresh, lyric quality that is quite unusual in this music and very much in keeping with the young Irish princess she portrayed. Charles Robert Austin sang with sadness, sensitivity and an affecting bass-baritone voice as King Marke. It was difficult to hear Mary Ann Stewart’s Brangane in her Act 2 watch, which she was mysteriously directed to sing from the very back of the stage: I hope this will be corrected in Fairfax, for she would seem to have a lovely dark voice. Baritone Nmon Ford proved a brilliant and exciting Kurwenal, and there was adept support from Daniel Snyder, Michael Dailey, Danny Markham and Juan Donyea Dunn.

Brangane aside, Lillian Groag’s stage direction was smart and concise and fit well into the modular ship’s hull set that designer Michael Ganio fashioned to pack and run — from Norfolk to Fairfax and then on to Richmond — in the best manner of the traveling shows from long ago.

Tim Page | February 11, 2005

Virginia Gazette

Virginia Opera succeeds with ‘Tristan and Isolde’

Social critic and writer Christopher Lasch once said, “nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.” This certainly applies to the Virginia Opera’s Virginia premiere of Wagner’s monumental “Tristan and Isolde.”

In fulfilling its continuing mission to help usher into public awareness some of the brighter young singers on the scene today, Peter Mark, artistic director, has mounted a highly commendable production. That the work is seldom done except in major houses attests to the vocal challenges “Tristan and Isolde” pose. Mark has brought to this Lillian Groag-directed production two very fine singers–tenor Thomas Truhitte as Tristan and soprano Marjorie Elinor Dix as Isolde, the two lovers who find union only through death.

Truhitte and Dix make an attractive pair, which is also in line with Virginia Opera’s drive to match roles with singers who look the part. Dix is lovely, as is Truhitte handsome, although his long blonde mane and now familiar and often exposed developed pectorals finds him looking a bit like an operatic Fabio. But, attractive they are. And, they certainly sing through the roles given them. For that, they deserve credit, as does the Virginia Opera for taking the plunge and staging this work. And on one level of success, this was a plunge that deserves substantial applause. Despite the gamble and many risks, it worked and worked well. I can’t imagine many regional companies would attempt the seemingly impossible. But Mark wanted to make the mark and he did.

For those not familiar with Wagner, this “Tristan” was even an unqualified success, as seen by the not unsurprising ovation that began quite a few moments before the entire music making was over. Part of that problem was in production and part in people simply not knowing that “it ain’t over ’til it’s over,” as Yogi Berra proclaimed. Sadly, the audience missed the final, absolutely ethereal musical moments and the stunningly beautiful sounds that draw to an appropriate close the love-death transformation. But, that’s part of continuing education.

Although Truhitte and Dix pulled it off, the fact remains that these were not the right voices for the roles. Truhitte is not a heldentenor; he’s a tenor of reasonable range but not one that is comfortable sounding in the stratosphere. His upper tones sounded forced rather than ringing and resonating. Granted, he’s done “Parsifal” and “Lohengrin,” but doing those doesn’t mean he’s vocally equipped to do “Tristan.” Truhitte is young. But, one worries over the health of his voice if he continues to try roles that may not, at this point in his growing career, be the best for him to be attempting. Hopefully a vocal coach is on top of this.

Similarly Dix did not have the commanding vocal presence, depth, or dimension required of Isolde. The role needs a voice that richly soars and propels you forward with the music into the ecstasy Isolde is experiencing as she prepares to die. Not that everyone needs to be or can be a Voigt, Norman, Nilsson, or even Eaglen on a good day, but that’s the sound that’s needed to make the role work.

By far, the one voice of this cast that found vocal focus was that of baritone Nmon Ford as Kurwenal, Tristan’s companion. Here was a voice that embraced the dramatics of the role. Beyond this, the cast performed well, with notable singing by Charles Austin as King Marke and Mary Ann Stewart as Brangane.

Most of the action in “Tristan” is internal to the characters. Not a lot happens physically, other than a few deaths. The heart of “Tristan’s” so called action rests in the heart and minds of Tristan and Isolde and the love that could only find resolution through death. Producing a “Tristan” also requires singers who can act. If they can’t, it becomes an excessively stagnant work. Director Groag, who is a skilled actress, one I’ve seen on stage and admired, is also a director and, in this outing, she dropped the ball.

There was no significant passion or emotional draw between Truhitte and Dix. They went through awkward motions intending to suggest passionate love, but it just didn’t work. How a director-actress could not see what wasn’t being seen or even credibly sensed during the rehearsal period is a mystery. Truhitte, who in past appearnces has not shown his acting skills to be a strong point, again fell short of believable characterization. Likewise did Dix miss the love boat. There was just no magic between them. Groag’s direction should have seen what was missing and fixed it rather than letting things go limp.

In fact, Groag seemed to slip in several areas. There were questions over some of the costuming and the appropriateness of it; and why a half clothed Tristan was placed outside on a rock in the snow to die instead of inside his Brittany castle; and why the kaleidoscopic lighting kept changing colors (perhaps to express emotional states?). Speaking of lighting, why wasn’t the lighting design crafted to help dissuade the audience from thinking the opera was over before it was over, which resulted in the audience applauding over the last and most glorious of musical moments in “Tristan.” Someone on the artistic team should have known what was going to happen. It’s a Wagnerian opera, for heaven’s sake; the endings of many of Wagner’s operas frequently demand extra concern to help prevent premature ovation. These are artistic concerns over which Groag should have had direct input. That “Tristan” didn’t take the dramatic shape it could and should have is the director’s shortfall. The Virginia Opera has rightly risen in reputation and respect and deserves much more directorial care than it received here.

The highest thrill point of “Tristan” came with the orchestra. Under Peter Mark’s baton, it performed brilliantly. The sounds were strong, lush, convincing, commanding, and overwhelmingly passionate. The musicians have never sounded as cohesive and as simpatico to the demands of the score as in this performance. Mark hit the mark totally in this most total and poetic-dramatic of renderings. It just couldn’t have been finer musically and helped make “Tristan” a success on anyone’s level.

John Shulson | February 3, 2005

Classical Voice of North Carolina

VOA’s Touring Tristan und Isolde: Wagner Lite but a Delight, Mostly

Online notices and a favorable Washington Post review of Virginia Opera Association’s ambitious and enterprising touring production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre in the fall of 2002 lured me across the border for the first of many satisfying matinees in Richmond. That Virginia premiere was followed this spring with the Commonwealth’s first performances of the composer’s revolutionary Tristan und Isolde. Both productions shared the over-all vision of Stage Director Lillian Groag, the firm and well balanced conducting of VOA Artistic Director Peter Mark, and a rising talent among today’s crop of tenors. Unlike the earlier Ring opera, this production was heavily cut. The rather fast-paced live Bayreuth recording of the opera by Karl Böhm has the three acts timing at 75,” 72,” and 72.” VOA cut about ten minutes from the first act and around twenty minutes from the other two. Nevertheless, there was much to enjoy in the February 20 performance, given in the beautifully restored Landmark Theater, formerly known as the Mosque.

While “perfect Wagnerites” properly cringe (or worse) at the prospect of “bleeding chunks” of Wagner being sliced off, a case can be made for some cuts in our imperfect age of Wagner singing. In his Post review (2/11/05) of this VOA production, Tim Page quotes Mark’s comments that the cuts were made in “consideration of the two leading singers, … performing the roles for the first time,” and also “for the sake of dramatic pacing for [the] audiences, who are accustomed to three-hour operas.'” Since the retirement of the towering “gods” — Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior — few mortals have been able to withstand the roles. Placido Domingo recorded Tristan with the aid of long rests between sessions and has refused to do the role on stage. An uncut performance could cut young singers careers short. And when Spoleto USA staged Menotti’s superb version of Parsifal in 1990, the audience was by midnight more than decimated. “Perfect Wagnerites” won’t fill a hall for rising young singers in our region, and modern audiences grow restless at even three-hour operas.

Though only identified as the “Tristan and Isolde Orchestra” in the program book, a violist confirmed my suspicion that the some 61 players are members of the Norfolk-based Virginia Symphony. All sections of the ensemble played superbly. The horns were simply outstanding in their many demanding and subtle passages such as the gradually-receding sounds of the hunting horns at the beginning of Act II. The strings played as one, with fine, warm sheen. The critical woodwinds, and especially the oboe and English horn, were wonderfully expressive. Mark maintained tight control between the stage and the pit, carefully balanced with his singers, and conveying a fine sense of the overall arch of each act.

The most powerful voice in the cast was that of dramatic soprano Marjorie Elinor Dix, who sang Isolde. Her solid and even voice never showed signs of strain and always managed to keep above the crest of the waves of sound generated by Wagner’s orchestra. While maintaining musical values, she was fully in character on stage, whether furiously raging at the beginning of Act I or swept up in a blind passion as the act ends. In this context, Act III’s “Liebestod” was emotionally wrenching and devastating. It was a promising debut in the role, although against a 100-piece orchestra and in a huge house it might have been a different story.

Tenor Thomas Rolf Truhitte was a fine Sigmund in the VOA’s Wälkure. Although listed as a “heldentenor” in publicity, that is premature. His vocal heft was noticeably less than Dix’s, but he brought a great deal of sensitivity to the role of Tristan. His gently-floated, quiet singing at the beginning of the Act II love duet was superb, and his portrayal of fevered delirium in Act III was deeply moving. A gallery on Truhitte’s webpage has photos from both VOA Wagner productions.

Great swaths of King Marke’s role were sorely missed since bass Charles Robert Austin combined a firm and warm sound with the deep pathos of his character’s suffering at the seemingly-willful betrayal of his trust and the tragedy of his attempt to right things at the end of Act III.

Mezzo-soprano Mary Ann Stewart’s pleasing, dark-tinged voice was unwavering across its range. Her portrayal of Brangäne’s conflicts of loyalty — while deciding to switch from poison to a love potion, for example – and while registering her horror at the ensuing careless and blind passion — were superb. Her Act II “Watch,” sung from offstage, could be heard clearly in the fine acoustics of the Landmark Theater. The role of Kurwenal, Tristan’s loyal and tactless companion, was taken by Nmon Ford, who possesses a warm and even-toned baritone voice and imaginative acting skills. This bodes well for his assumption of the role of Don Giovanni at the 2005 Spoleto Festival USA.

The shorter roles — tenor Daniel Snyder was the Young Sailor, baritone Juan Donyeá Dunn, the Steersman, tenor Michael Dailey, the villainous Melot, and tenor Danny Markam, the Shepherd – and the 16-member chorus were adequate or better.

While we had been pleased with Lillian Groag’s stage direction of the Ring opera, setting it in some vague mythic past, her decision to move the action of Tristan und Isolde from the age of Beowulf to that of Wagner’s own mid-19th century seemed senseless. Isolde and Bragäine ambled around in dresses with bustles, Tristan and Kurwenal were in military attire, and King Marke looked like Prince Albert. And where are the abstract post-WWII sets of the Wagner grandchildren when you want them? Period displacement aside, however, the blocking and movements of the singers were effective, as was the development of the characters.

Between acts, the constant negative refrain in all conversations with audience members related to the weird unit set designed by Michael Ganio. In Act I, the stage was dominated by an apparent slice across a ship with several rows of oars. We think it ill advised to have rowing oars below the water line… Tristan was supposed to be standing on the stern, and one would think fluid dynamics would imply some narrowness, even on a Mississippi river boat, but no — it looked like our hero was taking his promenade on the battery of Charleston harbor. For Act II, oars and pieces of hull were removed and some possible tent poles and a small tree (perhaps a sapling from the world ash tree?) arose amidships. And Act III resembled a bums’ camp more than a run-down castle.

The costumes designed by Robert Morgan were apt for the updated staging. The wide range lighting effects, dramatic and subtle, designed by Robert Wierzel, were exemplary in every way. An evocation of the aurora borealis fading into a fiery red sunrise underlined the unleashed passions of in Act I, and a suggestion of moonlight filtered through trees played across the lovers in Act II. Lighting design has been a strength of every VOA production I have covered.

William Thomas Walker

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A production by Lillan Groag (2005)