15 Aug 2010
Tristan in Seattle
Seattle, the city of software and Starbucks, is also a summer site for serious Wagnerites.
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.
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.
“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?
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.
Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park, with libretto by his regular collaborator Alasdair Middleton, has the remarkable distinction of being the first completed operatic adaptation of any Jane Austen novel to be staged.
London’s two principal opera companies have offered a baffling near-silence as their response to Wagner’s two-hundredth anniversary.
If a recent trio of musically superlative performances at Canadian Opera Company is indicative of their norm, the casting director should get a hefty bonus.
Just when you imagine you’ve got the operatic time-line fixed in your mind in a clean sweep of what goes where and when and how, you hear another work from another forgotten corner of the repertory that upends one’s conclusions.
Nothing inspires fable quite like defeat. The great riddle of Spanish history is how the Christian Visigoths managed to lose the Iberian peninsula to the Moors in one small battle in 711 and took eight hundred years to get it back.
Seattle, the city of software and Starbucks, is also a summer site for serious Wagnerites.
Best known for its regular Ring cycle, the Seattle Opera presents other Wagner operas in the off years. The high quality of this summer’s performance of Tristan und Isolde is a tribute to the company’s seriousness of purpose. While perhaps not quite a match for its legendary 1998 Tristan, in which Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner debuted in the title roles, it nonetheless presents as strong a cast as one is likely to encounter anywhere today.
Clifton Forbis is that rarest of singers: a genuine dramatic Heldentenor whose clarion top rests on a dark baritonal base. If his voice seems a bit less supple than in his impressive 2005 Geneva performance (available on DVD), it is now more solidly grounded. On August 4, despite lingering indisposition, he displayed hardly a single moment of technical insecurity. While somewhat restrained in Act I, perhaps by design, he trumpeted the Act III high notes with apparent ease—as if, in the Birgit Nilsson tradition, he could sing it all over again. (The performance was shorn of the Act II “Tag und Nacht” segment, a standard Seattle cut, but Act III was performed complete—more than many Tristans sing.) Throughout there were moments of genuine musical and dramatic insight. While those with a historical perspective might quibble, calling here and there for clearer diction, subtler phrasing, gentler pianos, warmer timbre, or deeper psychological insight—who today sings a finer Tristan?
Annalena Persson as Isolde
Much anticipation surrounded the American debut of Annalena Persson. The young Swedish soprano sang the role of Isolde to acclaim at the Welsh National Opera in 2006, where Seattle impresario Speight Jenkins signed her up. (The local press hints that she is slated as Seattle’s 2013 Brünnhilde as well.) Young, blonde, comely and, by Wagnerian standards, slim, Persson looks the part. Her silvery voice has edge and brilliance that can project, despite some lack of warmth and heft, through a Wagnerian orchestra. At times she is a thrilling interpreter, particularly at moments of anger and excitement, such as the Act I Narration and Curse—especially where the orchestration is light. But the role of Isolde overstretches her vocal resources. On sustained (particularly rising) tones in the upper middle part of the voice, the voice weakens and the vibrato widens dangerously. The “Liebestod,” almost entirely comprised of such passages sung against full orchestra, was thus anti-climactic.
The secondary roles were all taken by Seattle favorites, to great effect. Stephen Milling nearly stole the show with a moving König Marke. His rich bass effortlessly filled the hall, and his German diction was exemplary. Margaret Jane Wray is gaining attention these days, consistently singing major roles at the Met. To judge from her Brangäne here, the spreading fame is well-deserved. Hers is a soprano approach to this Zwischenfach role, slightly steely at the top, but clearly projected and delivered, with plenty of volume. Greer Grimsley, Seattle’s resident Wotan, made a more convincing Kurwenal for being understated and elegant wherever possible. Jason Collins plays a forceful Melot, Simeon Esper a sweet Shepherd/Sailor, and Barry Johnson a fine Steersman.
Clifton Forbis as Tristan
Seattle’s Principal Guest Conductor Asher Fisch is not one to pepper this score with excessive accelerandos, overweighty accents, or bloated brass. He strives instead for a consistent mood of classical restraint, brilliantly achieved through smooth line, subtle detail, smooth blend, and transparent textures. (Connoisseurs might note also the innovative use of open strings and Wagner’s specified Holztrompete in Act III.) The orchestra, once past some botched entrances in the prelude, played splendidly.
Stage director Peter Kazaras conceives Acts II and III as Tristan and Isolde’s final hallucination. That is, the potion is indeed the death potion Isolde ordered, and from then on we share the images that pass through the lovers’ minds in the moments before they expire. The inspiration is Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” This concept offers many potential insights into text and score. It promises to link the opera’s two central concepts, love and death, in a unique way, underscores Tristan and Isolde’s uncanny separation from all that goes on around them, with everything important taking place within their minds, and highlights the opera’s uniquely distorted sense of time.
Annalena Persson as Isolde and Margaret Jane Wray as Brangäne
Ultimately the production fails to fully engage this demanding concept, though the stage direction, set design, and costumes (the latter two being the work of Robert Israel) display numerous virtues. On the positive side, a semi-transparent curtain draws the viewer gently into the dream world of each act, as if falling asleep (in the best possible sense!). The gloomy semi-abstract unit set, with a window at the back into reality, is visually neutral but acoustically resonant—a virtue too often neglected these days. The blocking of Act II, in which Tristan and Isolde slowly follow one another across a dark stage, like Orpheus and Eurydice, evokes their ghostly state between worlds. Similarly consistent with the concept, Kurwenal is never killed but simply recedes from Tristan’s consciousness. Tristan and Isolde’s costumes shift from mortal red to half-red, and finally to pure transfigured white, as if the blood is slowly draining from them. The extensive use of computer-aided lighting effects, a Seattle innovation with this production, is evocative. Tristan sings his first lines in Act II while apparently fully encased in a large slab of solid stone—a striking effect in itself, but also one that highlights that Isolde is summoning him only in her mind. (It would be even more effective if maintained for more than a few lines.) Other coups de théâtre include a glittering shower for the potion, and a giant, glowing holographic candle for the Act II light.
Yet much else is a jumble, undermining the production’s core concept. Semi-realistic elements—large wrapped paintings, a tree, furniture, and the little model ship (mandatory, it seems, in contemporary Tristan productions)—coexist uneasily with abstract ones, such as laser-like red cords and a “stage within a stage” curtain behind which characters intermittently disappeared. This is hallucinatory, perhaps, but incoherent. The blocking at the end of Act I, and throughout Act II, tells us less than it might about the subjective experience of passing from day into night: It is not clear, for example, why the “dying” Tristan and Isolde are separated at the start of Act II, then again reunited. Nor does the costuming and comportment of secondary characters clearly delineate their status from the subjective perspective of the dying couple: One would expect a more fundamental change in how they are perceived after the Tristan and Isolde imbibe poison. In the end, too much of the production is static, even blandly realistic, in a classic stand-and-sing manner.
In the intermissions and on line, one encounters considerable criticism of this production for being too radical. I believe it is, on balance, too conservative. Readers of my recent commentary on the Stuttgart Ring know I can be critical of the excesses of Wagnerian Regietheater. Yet this production of Tristan might profitably have been more radical and rigorously intellectual—more konsequent, a German critic might well have said. The production is insightful as it stands, but a future revival might give Kazaras a second chance to realize its promising central idea more starkly.