Tristan und Isolde

Graeme Jenkins
Dallas Opera Chorus and Orchestra
16 February 2012
Opera Dallas
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanClifton Forbis
IsoldeJeanne‐Michèle Charbonnet
BrangäneMary Phillips
KurwenalJukka Rasilainen
König MarkeKristinn Sigmundsson
MelotStephen Gadd
Ein junger SeemannAaron Blake
Ein HirtAaron Blake
SteuermannQuincy Roberts
D Magazine

The Dallas Opera Brings Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde Into The 21st Century

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde poses more than the usual challenges of opera presentation. The new production by the Dallas Opera, which opened Thursday night at Winspear Opera House, answers all of those challenges, rendering that masterpiece from the 19th century as meaningful as ever in the 21st.

Based on a medieval romance, Tristan und Isolde is essentially a four-hour rumination on the nature of romantic love. Traditional staging of Wagner can be tricky at best: neither quasi-realism nor fantastical backdrops are ever entirely successful, and often seem at odds with the glorious music. In this production, designed by Christian Rath, brilliant computer projections on large, frequently moving panels constantly pulled the viewer through hyper-realistic and boldly abstract landscapes. Projections designer Elaine J. McCarthy and her colleagues manage to engage visually while never intruding on Wagner’s score, while always underlining the complex verbal content. At any given moment, the singers might be floating in space, or facing each other across a silk-covered bed, or standing on a beach surrounded by lapping waves, or deep in a woodland. Bold flashes of red—notably in Isolde’s attire and in a recurring diagonal stripe and a flexible rope—stood out against appropriately dark grays, browns, and blacks. The costumes, designed by Susan Cox of the faculty of University of Dallas, were brilliantly ambivalent and, and thought-provoking: the females were clad in a broadly medieval costume, while the men were largely dressed in quasi-fascist military uniforms.

Musically, opening night brought an impeccable reading of the score. Conductor and music director Graeme Jenkins once again proved an amazing ability to create and maintain impetus across a huge time-span—a knack he applies equally well in a wide variety of styles. As in all of his operas, Wagner here demands principal singers of extraordinary lung-power and stamina, and this cast is consistently up to the task. Tenor Clifton Forbis (chair of the voice department at SMU) and soprano Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet were dramatically and vocally powerful; mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips turned in an often entrancing performance as Brangane. Baritone Jukka Rasilainen and bass Kristinn Sigmundsson were equally notable as Tristan’s companion Kurvenal and King Marke.

Production designer Rath, who also served as stage director, likewise introduced a number of dramatic elements to further enrich this production. The physical interaction of Charbonnet and Phillips as Isolde and Brangane suggested an erotic attachment that strengthens the motivation for Brangane’s well-meaning betrayal of the pair in Act I. The staging likewise suggested a similar possibility—and interesting implications—in the relationship of Tristan and King Marke. And, in Rath’s version of the final scene, wonderfully realized by Forbis and Charbonnet, Isolde—already emotionally unstable in Act I—and Tristan have both clearly succumbed to madness as well as a higher, transcendent wisdom. The result of these elements is, in short, an unforgettable and thrilling operatic experience.


Dallas Morning News

Thursday night’s Tristan und Isolde just might have outdone even last season’s Boris Godunov as the most glorious performance I’ve witnessed from the Dallas Opera.

Of course, Wagner’s score is far more sophisticated than Musorgsky’s. Beyond that, there’s a powerhouse cast hard to outdo anywhere these days, and music director Graeme Jenkins gets playing of breathtaking eloquence from a very part-time orchestra.

Add imaginative, evocative projections, a collaboration of stage director Christian Räth and video artist Elaine McCarthy, who did the video for the 2010 Moby-Dick. Four hours and 20 minutes didn’t exactly whiz by in the Winspear Opera House, but it was time well spent.

Nearly canceled because of the company’s multimillion-dollar deficits, then announced as only a concert performance, the opera acquired a full staging thanks to special fundraising by the board.

At first, Clifton Forbis’ cautious singing as Tristan was worrisome. But a good deal of the part lies low and soft, apt to his meaty, baritonal timbre. At climaxes, he summons great clarion tones to fill the house.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet is every inch the passionate Irish princess, at first a bundle of fury, then wholly possessed by the love potion. Her soprano smolders hotly below, blazes thrillingly on high.

Jukka Rasilainen plays Tristan’s faithful servant Kurwenal not as the usual noble figure, but as a rather roughhewn character — Leporello minus the humor. I’m not sure I buy the concept, but he sings stirringly, with a pleasing bit of brass in the tone. Mary Phillips’ Brangäne is less matronly than usual, but again a singer of great vocal and emotional intensity.

Kristinn Sigmundsson is a stern King Marke, a huge man with a huge and thrilling bass. Stephen Gadd is aptly chilling, with yet another strong voice, as the betrayer Melot. A little uncertain in the Sailor’s tricky opening song, Aaron Blake sang beautifully in the third act.

The final scene, with hardly any physical interaction among the dramatis personae, suggests that maybe all is happening in Tristan’s dying brain cells. Maybe Räth is reinforcing the point that everything that goes wrong in the story is because people haven’t communicated. The ambiguity isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Shifting trapezoidal scrims come alive with telling images of water and clouds, moonlit trees and finally a starlit beach. Costumes, by Susan Cox, are of deliberately indeterminate period, maybe somewhere between 1850 and 1920: mostly long, buttoned-front dresses for the women, military uniforms for the men.

Jenkins eloquently sustains and subtly massages tensions and interplays over vast stretches of time. Offstage horns had some tuning issues, but in general the orchestra gave an incandescent performance.

Plan your life

Feb 17, 2012

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz 493 MByte (MP3)
A (semi-staged) production by Christian Räth (premiere)