Tristan and Isolde is a problematic opera. First of all, finding a cast that can sing the demanding roles is a world-wide challenge. Secondly, there are long stretches in which nothing much happens except for ecstatic love duets of sublime music and intimate arguments between two characters, interspersed with an occasional murderous conflict. Christian Räth, as stage director and overall creative conceptualizer, has managed to put a production on the stage at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House for The Dallas Opera that addresses both problems in an impressive manner.
First to the cast.
Rarely has a better cast been assembled. The singers did more than make it through Wagner's superhuman demands; they sang with conviction. There was some magnificent vocalism on the stage, delivered by fine singing actors. They even looked like their roles; so much so that a film of the opera could not have been better cast on purely visual merits alone.
However, as far as vocal contrast goes, there wasn't much. Both Isolode, New Orleans born Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, and her loyal servant Brangäne, the Rhode Island native mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips, have voices of a similar timbre. So do Tennessee native and Southern Methodist University Professor Clifton Forbis as Tristan, and the Finnish Bass-baritone Jukka Rasilainen, in his American debut, as Kurvenal.
The difference between mezzo soprano and actual soprano, as well as tenor and bass-baritone, has never been quite so slim. In the overall effect, the similarities of the vocal qualities mattered little to experienced fans of the opera. But to first-timers, it added to the difficulty of following who was saying what, although the excellent supertitles—projected above the stage—helped immensely. This is not a complaint about how the singers performed, only a comment on the casting. A darker mezzo and deeper bass-baritone would have offered the vocal contrast Wagner envisioned. Nevertheless, all of the singers covered themselves in glory.
The vocal stunner of the evening was Kristinn Sigmundsson, as King Marke, a bass of galactic dimensions and royal bearing, from Reykjavík, Iceland, in his Dallas Opera debut. His stentorian and resonant voice dwarfed the full Wagnerian orchestra and shook the rafters. Every time he appeared, he commanded the stage and hushed the audience. Let's hope he returns soon in a more central role. Forbis made a forceful and manly Tristan.
One acoustical problem early on was that the many sliding panels, constantly moving in and out, muted the sounds from the singers on stage. The voices didn't have the same presence in the hall that the orchestra did. Things improved in act two, as the panels were not as active. Likewise, the disparity between stage and orchestra vanished in act three, as did the panels. Perhaps it was where I was sitting, but the presence and projection of the singers on the stage improved in direct relationship with the lack of profusion of the panels.
On the other hand, the panels offered a blank canvas on which the wizardry of Elaine McCarthy's artistry could be projected. Agree with everything or not, the show is visually stunning. The real world, and the one only conjured in the minds of the protagonists, merge and you are never sure if you are in reality or not.
Starlit forests appear to envelope the lovers. Sails on Isolde's ship are transparent but suddenly turn as oppressive as a Victorian drawing room's velvet curtains. At the moment of the love potion's magical effect, Tristan and Isolde are isolated in a magical triangle of a peaceful river dappled with sunlight, but surrounded by angry red clouds. In Act II, the lovers are transported to outer space. OK, maybe a trip to the moon is a bit much, but the effect of the sun, eclipsed by the moon, suddenly bursting into fiery passion is a tour de force. When King Marke bursts in on the illicit lovers, the ecstatic world collapses as the harsh light of reality shines on them, like an interrogation light on a suspect being questioned.
In the last act, an oddly serene ocean calmly obeys the natural flow of the tides as the mortally wounded and now demented Tristan hopelessly waits for Isolde to save him. The waves wash over the shipwreck of Tristan's craft and roll into the orchestra pit, but no one gets wet. Even though Tristan thinks it is blazing day, a clouded but starry night sky gloomily hangs over the proceedings. A vision of his medieval castle vaguely appears and then vanishes before becoming fully formed.
Isolde arrives right at his last living moments—or maybe not. The fact that she doesn't run to him and hold his dying body, as he utters her name with his last breath, leads us to think that she is not really there. Adding to the question of her reality is her red prom dress, which could be more of a conjured memory in Tristan's feverish brain than a real Isolde, who would be wearing more realistic travelling clothes. Brangäne's arrival is equally surreal in that she doesn't go to Isolde to offer comfort, as any faithful friend would. Even King Marke, who arrives to try to make things right, fails to interact physically with the other characters. Perhaps they all only exist in Tristan's feverish imagination. Director Räth asks more questions than he answers.
Susan Cox's costumes are an odd collection of eras. The first act is vaguely medieval, but later, jack-booted Gestapo guards bring the 1940s to mind. Isolde appears in a '50s-era strapless red ball gown and King Marke is decked out as pre-communist Czar Nicholas might have been. The dress confusion adds to the real or not real atmosphere that perfumes this entire production.
Conductor Graeme Jenkins carefully paces his performance so that the final moment of Isolde's love-death is more like an inevitable "Amen" than climax. The orchestra responds well to his clear beat, although another rehearsal or two would have helped some ragged entrances and passages. But, let's be honest, when is this not the case with an opera so long that it takes two union regulation rehearsals to just get through the music once. All things considered, the orchestra gives an excellent reading of a complex score and Jenkins elicits a passionate performance. The few times that they covered the singers are unavoidable, considering how Wagner wrote the thick orchestration and drove the climatic moments.
What we have, in short, is a surreal, or maybe hyperreal, production of one of the most passionate operas ever composed. It is beautifully sung and visually stunning. While there are quibbles here and there, none of them detract from what the Dallas Opera has achieved in bringing to the stage what we once feared would be a stand-and-sing concert performance. While Tristan and Isolde is a fairly static opera, this production keeps the visual excitement alive by reflecting the state of mind of its characters, even when they are merely standing and singing this glorious music.