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08 Mar 2009
Tristan und Isolde in Chicago
By the close of the first act of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in its current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago the audience has been given a strong impression of the multi-faceted characters bound up in the musical drama unfolding on stage.
As the principals in this production
Deborah Voigt and Clifton Forbis give, at once, convincing and moving
performances, their interpretations each pitting an inner struggle of boundless
love against the conventions of the medieval court and its surroundings. Ms.
Voigt succeeds admirably in creating a vocal and dramatic transformation from
the offended, captive bride to the eager lover in a forbidden relationship.
Petra Lang’s Brangäne is vocally resplendent, while her dramatic approach
suggests a unified personality throughout the work. The Kurwenal of Jason
Stearns gains in intensity as the character moves from serving to caring for
his injured lord. The impression given by Stephan Milling as King Marke,
appearing on stage just moments before the final chords of Act I, establishes a
commanding presence whose authority will be enforced in the following scenes of
During the prelude to the opera a soft light shines upon a blue scrim
bearing the names of the lovers. This attention to the beauty of the ill-fated
tragic love is matched by dissonances subtley woven into the lush orchestral
playing under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis. As the scrim rises on the
opening scene aboard Marke’s ship anticipation is immediately evident in
the interaction of characters expecting to approach Cornwall by the end of the
day. Isolde is awakened from her sleep by the song of a young sailor , which
she interprets as mocking her with the words “irische Maid.” Ms.
Voigt uses this opening as a touchstone to launch into her expressive
irritation, during which her voice carries a restrained yet evident harshness
because of her current position as a bride en route to Marke. Brangäne is sent
several times to summon Tristan for a verbal reckoning with her lady, yet he
refuses to leave his position at the helm. Here the gestures and dignified
control used by Mr. Forbis underline the formality that Tristan chooses to
emphasize in service to King Marke.
As the character both moving between and hoping to establish communication
among the principals Brangäne’s tone is, at this point in the scene,
especially variable. Ms. Lang modulates her voice here effectively in order to
indicate these significant shifts. She relays, at once, the demands of Isolde
to Curwenal and to Tristan as well as her frustrations because the men refuse a
direct interview with Marke’s future queen. It is noteworthy that
tensions growing during the course of the act are justly framed by the
combination of sets and costumes originally designed in 1987 by David Hockney
for the Los Angeles Opera. The stylization of the stage sets contrasts with the
quasi-medieval realism of the costumes, in effect lending a mythical yet
believable tone to the drama. At this point, the nuanced vocal performance by
Ms. Lang illustrates especially the effect of this synthesis in Hockney’s
scenic and costume designs. Whereas Lang’s monochromatic facial
expression matches the costume fitting into a pictorial frame, her Brangäne
demonstrates a vast spectrum of vocal expression, from her pleading with
Tristan “Höre wohl: deine Dienste will die Frau,” [“Listen
well: the lady desires your attentions”] to the impassioned high notes of
“Weh, ach wehe! dies zu dulden!”[“O, woe! To have to endure
this!”], as she delivers her answer to Isolde. In her memorable
characterization Lang affirms the position of Brangäne not only as companion
but also as a voice of encouragement and advice.
In response to the fruitless efforts for an interview as rebuffed by
Tristan, Isolde elaborates now to Brangäne the background of her frustration.
As one of the dramatic highlights of Act I, Ms. Voigt unleashes a searing
account of her earlier humiliation (“Schmach,” as repeatedly
intoned) by Tristan. Although he had killed her betrothed Morolt in a duel,
Tristan’s wounds forced him to return to Ireland to be healed by the
skills of the princess. When she recognized the patient whom she was tending,
Isolde relates how she could not bring herself to wield Tristan’s sword
and kill him in vengeance. In Voigt’s interpretation, the bitter
resignation of recalling her “Schmach” increases during the
monologue and reaches a crescendo as she declares with great emotion “Nun
dien ich dem Vasallen!” [“Now I remain in service to the
vasall!”]. Voigt’s curses leveled soon after in this scene are an
especially powerful evocation of Isolde’s anger and her emotional
excitedness while traveling under Tristan’s protection to Cornwall. At
Brangäne’s suggestion that a love potion, provided by Isolde’s
mother, be used to foster an emotional relationship between Marke and his
bride, Isolde’s response shows her attempt to settle the past. Her words,
are marked to be sung “düster,” with ominous notes, as she clearly
chooses the flask with poison — which she proposes to share with Tristan
— rather than a filtre for love. Voigt projects a noticeable tone of
foreboding, as she intones the words “Den Schrein dort bring mir
her!” [“That chest you must bring to me!”]. Soon afterward
Tristan answers the repeated request that he approach Isolde: their heated
exchange culminates in Tristan’s offer that she slay him with that very
sword which she refused to use once before. At Isolde’s suggestion that
they share a draught of reconciliation, Brangäne prepares the potion.
Voigt’s gestures of impatience to her companion propel the dialogue with
Tristan to a climactic assent of “Sühne”
[“reconciliation”]. During this scene Mr. Forbis invests the
persona of Tristan with a controlled sense of dignity while allowing for as
broad a range of respect as possible in countering Isolde’s demands. Both
characters display a credible transformation after they drink from the potion
of love substituted by Brangäne. As Voigt and Forbis at first avoid each
other’s glance, then reach hesitatingly to clutch the partner’s
hand, their voices soften to express the love that will henceforth affect their
worldly existence. Their incorrigible embraces can be separated now, and in the
following act, only by the approach of King Marke.
It is in the second act that the full implications of the lovers’
transformation is explored. The emotional peak of this love is placed as the
middle of three scenes, in which the dramatic and emotional action is neatly
distributed among a varying constellation of participants. In the first of
these scenes Isolde and Brangäne await Tristan in a tree-lined garden; Isolde
dismisses the warnings of Brangäne that Melot, an alleged friend of Tristan,
will betray the secret love to King Marke. Here Isolde emphasizes the power of
love personified as she yearns for the cover of night. Voigt’s commands
to ignore any danger and to extinguish the torch, while ordering Brangäne to a
position of watch, elicit thrilling dramatic notes which effectively pierce the
summer night’s air. In the middle scene, soon after Isolde hurls the
illuminating torch to the ground, Tristan enters and the lovers are enveloped
in repeated physical as well as vocal embraces. Voigt and Forbis share and echo
phrases, while modulating the poetic lines, so that their extended love duet
enhances their emotional unity from the standpoint of both their words and the
lyrical projection of their feelings. During this duet Ms. Lang’s
extended warnings of “Habet Acht” show exquisite control of
phrasing as her voice is heard above the orchestra. Yet these warnings, and
those of Kurwenal, remain unheeded as King Marke enters together with Melot at
the start of the third scene. Marke’s disbelief now shifts to a
recitation of Tristan’s betrayal, as he finds his queen and his
friendship for Tristan thus compromised. Stephen Milling’s Marke is a
wonder of vocal delivery. His expressive bass emits a depth of feeling which
causes all those accused to look away in shame. The dignity of meaning
projected by Milling into the monologue of Marke is emphasized by his diction
and the arching structure given to individual lines. Yet the love of Tristan
and Isolde transcends the censure of the court, and Isolde agrees to follow
Tristan into exile. Only an attack by Melot, and his wounding of Tristan at the
close of the act, prevent the ecstatic love from continuing its uninterrupted
In the final act sadness and longing pervade the two major parts. In the
first of these Tristan, sickened by his wounds, reflects on the course of
events, on his shattered loyalties to Marke, and his unending desire to be
reunited with Isolde. Mr. Forbis invests his Tristan with a credible pathos,
giving vent to the character’s delirium while retaining the hope that
Isolde will yet appear to share his exile. When the ship from Cornwall does
arrive, and Isolde is allowed to embrace him in love, Tristan dies within
moments. Marke’s presence, the King having journeyed separately with his
entourage, can do nothing to remedy the inevitable path of emotions.
Isolde’s final “Liebestod,” sung by Voigt as one transfigured
through love and prepared for a union only in death, brings full circle the
love so movingly sustained from its earlier narrative start and its
foreshadowing in the overture.