10 Feb 2009
Chicago’s Lyric brings life to Tristan
Superlatives were in short supply when the curtain fell on Tristan und Isolde at Chicago Lyric Opera on January 27.
The Importance of Being Earnest , Gerald Barry’s fifth opera, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Barbican, and was first performed in concert, Thomas Adès conducting the London premiere.
‘Beauty is the one form of spirituality that we experience through the senses.’ In Thomas Mann’s, Death in Venice, Plato’s axiom stirs the hopes of the aging, intellectually stale poet, Gustav von Aschenbach, that he may rekindle his creativity.
What better way for Masonic brothers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Shikaneder to disseminate Masonic virtues, than through the most popular musical entertainment of their age, a happy ending folktale that features a dragon, enchanting flutes and bells, mixed-up parentage, and a beautiful young princess in distress?
There is a sense in which it all began in London, Puccini having been seized in 1900 with the idea of an opera on this subject after watching David Belasco’s play here.
The tenor that the audience most wanted to hear, Plácido Domingo, opened the vocal program with “Junto al puente de la peña” (Next to the rock bridge) from La Canción del Olvido (The song of Oblivion) by José Serrano. He sounded rested and his voice soared majestically over the orchestra.
Tucked away somewhere in the San Francisco Opera warehouse was an old John Cox production of Così fan tutte from Monte Carlo. Well, not that old by current standards at San Francisco Opera.
Rossini's Maometto Secondo is a major coup for Garsington Opera at Wormsley, confirming its status as the leading specialist Rossini house in Britain. Maometto Secondo is a masterpiece, yet rarely performed because it's formidably difficult to sing. It's a saga with some of the most intense music Rossini ever wrote, expressing a drama so powerful that one can understand why early audiences needed "happy endings" to water down its impact
I suppose it was inevitable that, in this Britten Centenary year, the 66th Aldeburgh Festival would open with Peter Grimes.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Garsington Opera at Wormsley isn’t Mozart as you’d expect but it’s true to the spirit of Mozart who loved witty, madcap japes.
What a pity! On a glorious — well, by recent English standards — summer’s day, there can be few more beautiful English countryside settings than Glyndebourne, with the added bonus, as alas much of the audience appears to understand it, of an opera house attached.
Described by one critic as “cosmically gifted”, during her tragically short career, American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson amazed and delighted audiences with the spellbinding beauty of her singing and the astonishing honesty of her performances.
Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity.
“I wrote it almost without noticing.” So Verdi declared when reminded of his eighth — and perhaps least frequently performed, opera, Alzira. One might say that, since he composed the work, no-one else has much noticed either.
Just when you thought the protagonist was Hoffmann! Who, rather what stole the show?
When is verismo verily veristic? Or what is a virginal girl dressed in communion white doing in the two murderous acts of the Los Angeles Opera’s current production of Tosca? And why does she sing the shepherd's song?
Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.
Wagner’s Lohengrin is not an unfamiliar visitor to the UK thanks, in the main, to Elijah Moshinsky’s perennial production at Covent Garden.
Philip Glass's The Perfect American at the ENO in London is a visual treat, but the libretto is mind-numbingly anodyne.
Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.
Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma.
Superlatives were in short supply when the curtain fell on Tristan und Isolde at Chicago Lyric Opera on January 27.
New vocabulary was needed to describe the awesome excellence of this first of nine performances of Wagner’s most sensual and seductive work.
This lay — briefly — in the brilliance of David Hockney’s sets and costumes, undiminished even after 20 years on various stages. The cast was of an even artistry hardly expected in today’s overworked Wagnerian world. Andrew Davies did not merely conduct the incredible orchestra that he has built at the Lyric; he truly recreated this mammoth score, leading the listener through the tormented course that Wagner had pursued in writing the work.
This was, indeed, an evening beyond expectations. Yet its beginning was less than auspicious. Deborah Voigt — more Barbie Doll than medieval mail-order bride in brightest red — was strangely dwarfed by Hockney’s bigger than life designs. And the fact must be faced that she no longer has that lush richness of voice that disappeared with her hard-gained leanness.
Argentinian director José María Condemi, the only consistently weak link in the production crew, was clearly in over his head in what appears to have been his first Wagnerian assignment. Act One was segmented — a series of scenes that failed to flow into an engaging dramatic whole.
Although Voigt handled the narrative well, her curse did not curdle the blood as it should have. Indeed, had one not known — and respected — the work that makes her the “Isolde of choice” in the eyes of many, there would have been a discomforting feeling that she was miscast. Thus the amazement at the transformation that flowed from the Lyric’s stage in Act Two. Here things jelled; individual contributions melded into a dramatic impact that listeners carried with them into the cold and windy Chicago night.
This was above all a youthful Tristan. The Weltschmerz-stricken lovers were convincing as humans feeling these conflicting passions for the first time. American Heldentenor Clifton Forbis, well established around the world as a major Wagnerian, was a handsome and well-matched partner for Voigt. A man of marked intelligence, he even made sense of Wagner’s metaphysical ramblings on the conjunction “and” and matters of individuation in Act Two, integrating this text meaningfully into the context of the intimate exchange that follows the exuberant greeting that opens the act.
In his comments on the opera Condemi suggested that “the plot of Tristan could be summarized like this: two women walking around the stage (Act One), two people sitting on a bench (Act Two), and a man keeps getting up and lying down again (Act Three).” Alas, Condemi was largely content to leave it at that.
Happily, it was Forbis who moved the opera beyond such simplification, especially in his review of his life in Act Three, where so much that has happened before Act One is explained. It is here that the real Tristan is encountered, and Forbis made him comprehensible — and extremely sympathetic. He did this without a hint of strain or exhaustion. He is a singer who knows how to use his voice wisely.A scene from Act II of Tristan und Isolde
Particularly amazing was Jason Stearns’ sensitive portrayal of Kurvenal as a servant of near-adolescent emotional devotion to his master. A late substitute for Finland’s major new Wagnerian Juha Uusitalo, Stearns came late to opera, having served 21 years in the Army before turning to singing. Coached by Thomas Steward in the final year of the American’s life, Stearns sang the Dutchman at Savonlinna last summer, and other Wagnerian assignments await him. Whether he — a rather small man — can handle Wotan in large American houses waits to be seen; here, however, he was a perfect Kurwenal who fit with ease into the concept of the staging. Greer Grimsley replaces him later in the run.
Chicago makes it a practice to seek comment from its singers for its program book, and about his role in Tristan Stearns wrote tellingly: “When Tristan dies, Kurwenal really doesn’t want to live anymore. He forces death on himself — he wants to die with his leader.” This approach came out in Stearns’s every move. He was a servant not of dog-like devotion, but a young man tenderly in love — yes, the word fits here in its highest meaning — with his master. It was a deeply touching portrayal.
If anyone “owns” the role of Brangäne today, it is Petra Lang, who has been Isolde’s soul mate on every major stage and shared honors with Voigt when she sang her first Isolde in Vienna in 2003. Although Lang stressed that she sees Brangäne “as a younger confidante, a friend to Isolde,” here she failed to cast aside the traditional German mold of a reserved member of the court. And although she sang her second-act warning beautifully, Michelle DeYoung would have been a more appropriate servant in this staging.
The flowing white hair that Stephen Milling wore made King Marke unusually aged — especially in contrast to the youthfulness of the production. Yet the Danish bass wore his suffering with credible dignity.
Wagner instructs that Isolde expire “as if tansfigured,” sinking in Brangäne’s arms onto Tristan’s body, Condemi chose to have Voigt die on her feet at some remove from her beloved. On the heels of a “Liebestod” so triumphantly sung as it was here such stage directions are of little concern. Voigt gave it her all, leaving the audience so mesmerized that they were hesitant to applaud until the stage grew dark.
In 1966 when David Hockney made his theatrical debut with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi he did not stray far from the proscenium like compositions in many of his paintings. He took a bigger step in his designs for the 1978 Glyndbourne Magic Flute, where he opened the first act with a rocky, palm filled landscape that is replaced by increasingly symmetrical, monumental flats that refer to the opera’s earliest sets of 1791.
Nearly ten years later, in his design for Tristan he equipped the first-act ship with sails that billow before an empty vista. In Act Two a heavy cloud, first drawn by Hockney in Iowa, (1964), looms over a diagonal stand of trees across from Isolde’s palace that again direct the action of the opera to its inevitable denouement. In the final act a mammoth tree arcs over the scene in which a desolate cliff carries the opera to its ultimate tragedy.
Color was a fundamental key to the entire production: Isolde in the red of royalty, Brangäne in earthly green, Marke, suitably in purple, and the men of action in functional “drab” or colors related to the King. Hockney wisely borrowed the effect of his wardrobe from 15th century paintings by Piero da Francesco and other early Renaissance artists.
The Chicago staging was sensitively lighted by Duane Shuller.
Holding this all together was the magisterial conducting of Lyric music director Andrew Davis, whose delicate balance of singers and orchestras and shadings of tempo made this an evening even superior to what the world admires in the Wagner of James Levine and the ensemble at the Met. A truly and thoroughly remarkable Tristan und Isolde.
With Gustav Mahler’s valedictory Ninth Symphony the Chicago Civic Orchestra offered an ideal prelude to the Lyric’s Tristan on January 26 in Symphony Hall.
The training ensemble of the Chicago Symphony, the 100-plus members of the CCO, graduates all of the world’s top conservatories, were conducted on this occasion by Esa-Pekka Salonen, retiring music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Although just 50, on the podiatry Salonen could still pass for a teenager. He was in perfect “sync” with his musicians.
In his Norton lectures Leonard Bernstein analyzed the concluding Adagio of the work — to be played “very slow and reserved — as a triple act of leave-taking: it reflected first the irregular heart-beat that was to fell Mahler before the premiere of the work, plus which — said Bernstein — the movement is both the end of the symphony as it had existed up to that time and further “the end of our Faustian culture.” The performance in a packed - provided food for thought on “Lennie’s” ideas, along with the opportunity to contemplate the consequences of Wagner.