Tristan und Isolde

Andrew Davis
Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra
4 February 2009
Lyric Opera Chicago
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanClifton Forbis
IsoldeDeborah Voigt
BrangänePetra Lang
KurwenalJason Stearns
König MarkeStephen Milling
MelotDaniel Billings
Ein junger SeemannDavid Portillo
Ein HirtEdward Mout
SteuermannPaul Corona

Since its premiere in 1865, Richard Wagner’s signal work of musical modernism, Tristan und Isolde, remains a truly powerful opera, and this recent production by Lyric Opera of Chicago was exceptionally moving. With its fine international cast, an experienced conductor and orchestra, and an effective production by David Hockney, the combined elements produced a fine synergy; invoking the cliché, that this was as near to Gesamtkunstwerk as one might hope to experience anywhere.

Deborah Voigt was compelling both vocally and dramatically as Isolde, a role in which she seemed to be fully absorbed. Her steely vocal edge in the first act shocked us into grasping Isolde’s sudden realization of her fate at the hands of the English knight whose own destiny had been so recently in her own hands. She commanded the stage in the narrative “Wie lachend sie mir Lieder singen” sustaining the mood in the encounter with Tristan that followed. The recognition scene at the end of the act was stunning vocally, as her voice soared freely to express the ecstasy induced by the love potion. In the second-act duet “Tristan! Isolde! O sink hiernieder” the particularly focused rapport with Clifton Forbis’s Tristan added enormous intensity to the lovers sense of psychic unity expressed in Wagner’s Schopenhauer-inspired libretto. As this Isolde reprised Tristan’s music from the second act at the famous “Liebestod” with which the opera ends, the audience understood the entirety of the depth of love depicted on stage. Voigt’s portrayal was intensely musical and emotionally compelling in all three acts.

Clifton Forbis was a strong and persuasive Tristan, as easy in his role as Voigt was in hers. Forbis gave a welcome physicality to the role from the start, responding dramatically to the relentless accusations that Isolde weighed on him in the first act. His body language and gestures were a perfect foil for Isolde’s rage, and the full voiced singing he produced for the second-act duet demonstrated his own commitment to a Tristan equally absorbed in the magic that ultimately sealed his fate. The joint lyricism was as intoxicating as it should be, evcen when interrupted by Melot’s betrayal of the lovers to King Mark. As lyrical as Forbis was in the second act, his “delirium” in the third act, was marvellously sung too always underscoring the meaning of the text to perfection. This was a tremendous performance, matching Deborah Voigt’s characterisation magnificently.

Stephen Milling brought an extraordinary presence to the role of King Mark, with his large and sonorous bass voice suggesting all of Mark’s nobility and compassion. Once again, the text came fully to life and Milling’s portrayal felt both natural and believable. This was his debut role at Lyric Opera and a voice of this quality is certainly a welcome element to the company.

Singing Brangäne, a role she has performed to acclaim in many other houses, including Bayreuth and Vienna, Petra Lang’s characterization suggested a romantic youthfulness in Act I which plausibly explained her duplicity in switching the potions, her single act of defiance to Isolde’s commands. More worldly wise in the second act, as the voice of reason she warns Isolde of become overly careless in showing affection for Tristan. By the third act, Brangäne has changed further, having become a figure at Mark’s court, and since Brangäne is not the at all same kind of woman as Isolde, Petra Lang brought all of her distinguished experience as singer and actress to the role to highlight these character developments.

Supporting this production is David Hockney’s captivating scenic design. The sets are architecturally intriguing in the use of angles to convey a sense of expansiveness. The first act has an almost Baroque perspective through the placement of the prow of the ship at the center of the stage, opening up the spaces to the left and right of it. In the second act, the use of colors enhances the mood of the action, with rich, dark hues surrounding the characters on stage. Points of light suggesting a starry sky support the images of night in the text and in contrast to the often gray-tinged color schemes of the third act, the rocky tor of Kareol juts out to suggest the promontory of a coast line and its proximity to the sea. Hockney’s sometimes brightest colors work well, naturally enough with his costumes which take their cues from traditional, albeit generic medievalism. The opening of each act is enhanced by a scrim, which helps the characters on the set to resemble images on painted flats at first, coming to life as the stage opens and the action begins.

The production allows the text and stage directions to emerge clearly, without visual gimmicks or the pretence of updating which all too often introduce extra-textual elements to this work. Given such a fair reading, it is laudable to see Wagner’s stage directions honored, as at the crucial point near the end of the first act when Tristan and Isolde have swallowed what each of them believes to be the poison. The libretto indicates that they look at each other, thus implying a curiosity to see if the other were expiring. In this production their hands move increasingly closer until their touch, a gesture mentioned in the libretto and made to work well in Lyric’s staging. Attention to details like this give the production a firm sense of integrity.

Sir Andrew Davis’ musical direction was exemplary in setting the tone of the production from the outset with an appropriately intense perfomance of the famous Prelude. His tempos allowed the score to be transparent, with the various orchestral voices and timbres emerging clearly and it was possible to hear that the instrumental interludes in this score as important as the accompaniment to the voices. Dynamics and tempi were always appropriate and supported the the voices on stage so well that they supported the text, with almost exemplary clarity.

This is an exceptional production, and Lyric Opera is to congratulated on making it available not for just a few, select performances, but for a run that extends throughout the month of February. Those unable to attend the remaining live can to hear it as part of the Lyric Opera broadcasts that generally follow the Metropolitan Opera season.

James L Zychowicz | Lyric Opera Center Chicago 31.1.2009

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz 487 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by David Hockney