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Half a winner--again

The Kennedy Center Opera House
02/27/1999 -  and March 2*, 5, 8, 14, 17, 20, and 23, 1999
Richard Wagner Tristan und Isolde
Jyrki Niskanen (Tristan), Carol Yahr (Isolde), Rosmarie Lang (Brangäne), Jürgen Freier (Kurwenal), James Shaffran (Melot), Frode Olsen (King Marke), Corey Evans Rotz (Sailor), Robert Baker (Shepherd), Joel Schmidt (Steersman)
The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the Washington Opera Chorus, Heinz Fricke, (conductor)
Mauro Pagano (director)

With their first staging of Tristan und Isolde in twenty years, The Washington Opera has done it again—given audiences precisely one half of a gripping performance.

Mauro Pagano's sets are strikingly beautiful, in a minimalistic and distinctively archaeological way. The ship's hold of Act I is decidedly reminiscent of a sherd of a giant shallow bowl with matte black sides and glossy black floor. A billowing white sail is lifted to reveal the ship's bow sparingly ornamented with Celtic knotwork designs. Act II opens on an amphitheatrical garden, but the primitive columns and rough-hewn, turf covered steps speak more of Stonehenge than of Greece. Tristan's Act III castle looks very much like the circular ruins of stone forts that cover the west of Ireland.

Joan Sullivan's lighting design is the blazing crown of this magisterial production. By turns subtle and dramatic, it is always original and deftly accentuates and underscores the action of the drama. The atmosphere created on board the ship is so sparklingly crisp that one can practically smell the salt spray. And surely all humanity would gladly extinguish day forever if every night were lit with such "darkling glory."

The not always reliable Kennedy Center Orchestra came to resplendent life under the masterful baton of Maestro Fricke. In the big moments, wave after opulently swelling wave of glorious and intelligently constructed music swept the opera house up in a veritable maelstrom of passion and longing. This grandeur entirely compensated for a certain laxness in the transitions between emotional peaks, and a lack of cohesion in the handling of the score as a whole.

Unfortunately, this potentially splendid production is only marred by the necessary inclusion of singers. Despite a complete lack of top notes and minimal vocal power, Carol Yahr, with diligent work, can reasonably aspire to success as a Butterfly, or even perhaps a Tosca, in small, regional companies. Jyrki Niskanen's tenor is characterized by a peculiar, though not unpleasant, vibrato. This vibrato, along with his lack of vocal heft, gives one the eerie feeling of watching a man lip-synch to an old wax-cylinder recording. The supporting cast displays varying degrees of competency, though it must in all fairness be noted that Rosemarie Lang was consistently audible over the orchestra, and Robert Baker was quite convincing as the shepherd.

MK Blackwood



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