Opera Review: Tristan & Isolde
© THE FLASH LIST | February 17, 2012
Photos by Karen Almond
The Dallas Opera at Winspear Opera House
Libretto By Richard Wagner
based on romance by Gottfried von Strassburg
Production conception, design and stage direction by Christian Räth
A toast … to forgiveness, love, desire … and death?
Opening at the Winspear last night in a sort of operatic version of “I wish that I had Jessie’s girl,” Tristan & Isolde is the powerful tale of a heroic Cornish knight who is desperately in love with a beautiful Irish princess … who happens to be the wife of his uncle, the king.
This famous and exceedingly important work (considered by many as the most influential since the mid-19th century) was written and composed by Richard Wagner (pronounced Ree-card Vahg-nur) and influenced by the Schopenhauer philosophy that man is continually (and miserably) driven by unachievable desires. From the very first few notes of the 11 minute opening overture, this intensely romantic tragedy (conducted here by The Dallas Opera’s Music Director Graeme Jenkins) creates a suspenseful, sweeping sense of yearning with distinct and beautiful yet unresolved musical cadences that rise continually throughout the entire opera like an exceptionally tall roller coaster ticking up, up, up for hours and hours. It’s only at the story’s dramatic closing climax that you finally round the top, prepare to descend, and realize you’re no longer tentative but rather ready to embrace the release.
Wagner is known for his magnificently rich, technically challenging compositions and abundant use of leitmotifs (pronounced layt-moe-teefs), those reoccurring musical phrases associated with a particular character or symbol (like the ones used in Star Wars - think “da da da daaaahhh da … da da da daaahh”). (It was Wagner, on a related movie side note, that created the opera series commonly referred to as the Ring Cycle, part of which revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world; and if that story doesn’t sound familiar enough, then surely the “Ride of the Valkyries” music which can be heard in countless Hollywood films will).
With his continuous orchestra music from beginning to end and a strong emphasis on vocal presentation as opposed to physical theatrics, Tristan & Isolde is a feast for the ears and emotions. It’s a concert and symphony rolled into one, and in this case overlaid with video imagery and photographic projections (by Elaine McCarthy, creator of special video effects for the critically acclaimed world premiere of Moby-Dick) featuring nautical themes, a dreamy forest, ethereal skies, and slow motion video waves in negative that flood across the back wall screen and stage floor.
Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, a New Orleans soprano recognized worldwide as a leading force in the German and contemporary repertoires, performs the part of Isolde with boldness and grace as the love struck Tristan is sung with incredible stamina by Nashville tenor Clifton Forbis, who has earned international acclaim for his portrayals of Tristan and has recently been appointed chair of the voice department in the Division of Music at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. Their onstage chemistry (specifically in their half hour or so love duet in Act II) is deeply moving.
Based on ancient Celtic legend, Tristan & Isolde recounts the results of a deceptive potion substitution. After killing Isolde’s fiancé in combat, Tristan is assigned to escort the princess on an oceanic voyage from Ireland to England in order for her to be married to his uncle, King Marke (Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, making his extremely impressive Dallas Opera debut). But despite the pleadings of her maid Brangäne (pronounced brahn-gay-nuh, and beautifully sung by the sweetly expressive mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips), Isolde is distraught because she and Tristan developed a romantic background when she nursed him back to health after he was wounded at the sword of her now deceased fiancé (well, after Isolde decided not to then kill Tristan herself, anyway). So now Tristan is being painfully distant (for patriotic and ethical reasons) and his friend Kurvenal (fantastic Finish bass-baritone Jukka Rasilainen in his American debut) is being curt (for sort of masculine, protective reasons), so Isolde decides to split a death potion with Tristan to just end it all. But instead, Brangäne mixes a love potion, and thus, voilà, the ever-increasing tormenting conflict ensues, especially after courtier Melot (baritone Stephen Gadd, also making his American debut) publicly discloses their affair. And keep in mind, it’s opera; so somebody’s gonna die.
Storytelling through song and uplifting music that lends itself to closing your eyes and leaning your head back, Tristan and Isolde is an exquisite musical drama. But we have to be honest with you; such a masterwork is not for the faint of heart. If you are new to opera or hoping to maybe bring your less-than-enthusiastic husband along to this four and a half hour production (which actually includes two twenty minute intermissions) which is sung in German (with English supertitles), well then … mmmm … you might be better off waiting for Mozart’s The Magic Flute which The Dallas Opera will perform in April (especially since they’re doing a FREE live simulcast on the huge screens at Cowboys Stadium).
Otherwise, get ready for a wonderful evening of opera by getting more event details, finding the best seating options (because you will definitely want to be able to see the supertitle translations well), reading the plot synopsis and/or cast bios, hearing TDO’s lecture before the show, getting facts about the Winspear and The Dallas Opera, watching the 2006 movie beforehand, reading The Flash List’s Opera: A Beginner’s Guide, and more.