Tristan und Isolde

Asher Fisch
Chorus and Orchestra of the Seattle Opera
21 August 2010
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall Seattle
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanClifton Forbis
IsoldeAnnalena Persson
BrangäneMargaret Jane Wray
KurwenalGreer Grimsley
König MarkeStephen Milling
MelotJason Collins
Ein junger SeemannSimeon Esper
Ein HirtSimeon Esper
SteuermannBarry Johnson
The Seattle Times

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which opened Seattle Opera’s 2010-2011 season in a new production by Peter Kazaras, is justly regarded as the most influential work in the history of music since the mid-19th century. Whether that redounds entirely to its credit is a fair question.

As a consequence of the chromaticism that the composer took further here than in any other of his works, the music suffers from a pervasive lack of harmonic pulse. Vitiated by the absence of a truly propulsive bass line, everything happens on the beat, with a squareness that stands in stark contrast to Brahms’s combination of equally striking harmonic invention with life-giving rhythmic flexibility. The ultimate legacy of what Wagner achieved here may be found in 20th-century atonality, and only those untroubled by the want of real movement in the music of the Second Viennese School can reasonably regard Tristan’s influence as a good thing.

Such stylistic considerations aside, however, there could hardly be any doubt of the overwhelming sonic glory the opening-night performance achieved under Asher Fisch’s masterful baton. The orchestral sound, crucial in any Wagner opera, was magnificently full, rich, and delicately nuanced, from soaring strings, plangent woodwinds, and threatening drums and heavy brass to offstage hunting horns and a solo on a Holztrompete, or wooden trumpet, borrowed for the occasion. With this sumptuous support, every voice projected a quality to match that of any operatic cast in the world.

As Isolde, Swedish soprano Annalena Persson, making her US debut, unfurled a securely centered tone that could dominate the ensemble with apparent ease. There is an edge to her sound, but an edge that thrills rather than disturbs. And for once we could watch a singer whose slim, tall figure and facial beauty made a truly credible Isolde. Her worthy partner as Tristan was Clifton Forbis, a tenor with a warm baritonal tinge to his voice, and equally adept in portraying the intermingled torment and ecstasy of his role.

Brangäne and Kurwenal were those familiar company favorites, Margaret Jane Wray and Greer Grimsley. The smaller roles of Sailor, Shepherd, and Steersman were well taken, and Danish bass Stephen Milling, as King Marke, revealed perhaps the richest voice of all.

In terms of production Peter Kazaras, an unfailingly creative director, presented Tristan und Isolde as an opera of the mind. Citing inspiration drawn from Ambrose Bierce’s short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, he showed us a extra-temporal drama taking place not in the physical world but in the characters’ imaginations, perhaps in that instant of insight that is supposed to come just before death.

This notion explains the deliberate non-realism of Robert Israel’s spare sets and simple costumes. Enhanced by Duane Schuler’s subtle lighting, and by some modest but effective use of projections, it was exemplified in the disjunction between the implicit urgency of the action and the almost catatonic leisure with which it was played. Being the story of two people whose lives are derailed by a drug, Tristan is, after all, a tract for our times, if not necessarily for our place–perhaps you have to be German, at least in your cultural sympathies, to respond to the work’s obsessive association of love with death. In the greatest of all 19th-century operatic epics, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, death comes to Dido as it does to Isolde. She embraces it, however not because she identifies it as some sort of mystical validation and crown of love, but precisely because love has been lost to her.

A second fair question, indeed, might be whether “love” is an appropriate word for what transpires between the protagonists in Tristan und Isolde. Even in the second act (where, by the way, this performance made a cut of about five minutes in the score), words of love are outweighed by pretentious pseudo-metaphysical claptrap. “I myself become the Cosmos” (rendered thus in Jonathan Dean’s customarily clear and helpful supertitles) may serve as a typical sample. And again, while the spectacle of two people yelling their heads off against a background of hectic orchestral din constitutes a major part of Wagner’s conception of what makes music erotic, a comparison with the lyrical tenderness of “Nuit d’ivresse” in The Trojans supplies a healthy corrective clue to what a real love duet can be like.

The fact, then, that in this production the two supposed lovers never actually touched each other until Tristan was dead might almost be taken as a mordant directorial insight into the true nature of the drama; and it was by no means a weakness, but rather suggested an unblinking realization of the egotism Wagner shared with his characters, that Kazaras made no attempt to moderate the horror of seeing Tristan and Isolde calmly discussing their future plans not five feet away from the stricken figure of King Marke, whose life their betrayal has just destroyed.

The little model held up to symbolize the approach of Isolde’s ship was a frankly silly idea–and Isolde went beyond a too familiar directorial cliché by standing at one moment not on a mere chair but on a chaise longue. But such minimal weaknesses were outnumbered by innumerable positive touches, often including the avoidance of prosaic literalism. A good example was the extinguishing of the signal flame in Act 2 without any visible human intervention.

For Tristan fans, then, this was a production of great musical splendor, and one that in dramatic terms was at once challenging and satisfying.

Bernard Jacobson | 2. August 2010

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere, HO
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 524 MByte (MP3)
A production by Peter Kazaras