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Historic Tristan und Isolde at Lyric

Civic Opera House
01/27/2009 -  and January 31, February 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Clifton Forbis (Tristan), Deborah Voigt (Isolde), Petra Lang (Brangäne), Stephen Milling (King Marke), Jason Stearns (Kurwenal, Jan. 27, 31, 4, 8), Greer Grimsley (Kurwenal, Feb. 12, 16, 20, 24, 28), Daniel Billings (Melot), Edward Mout (Shepherd), David Portillo (Sailor), Paul Corona (Steersman)
Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)
David Hockney (set/costume designer), José María Condemi (stage director), Duane Schuler (lighting designer), Donald Nally (chorus master), Richard Jarvie (wigmaster/makeup designer)

(© Dan Rest)

The Civic Opera House's doors opened on Tuesday night to a crowd chattering more about the biting Chicago cold than the opera they were about to see. By the end of the first act, different words were on the lips of Lyric Opera of Chicago's patrons—words like "powerful," "moving," and "intense." At the end of the night, an even more select vocabulary had emerged—"monumental," "unforgettable," and even "historic." These were the words people chose to describe the nearly perfect opening night performance of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, led by the soaring success of a renascent Deborah Voigt and an impassioned Clifton Forbis.

Voigt's triumphant night did not occur in a vacuum, however. The Chicago-native soprano has had trouble with the role recently, most notably at the Metropolitan Opera where she had both vocal and health issues working against her. Voigt put to rest any doubts of vocal problems early on opening night, though, showing consistent ease in jumping to the higher registers called for by Wagner in the first act. She showed no nerves in the Act II duet, producing full, rich tones that carried throughout and to the back of the Civic Opera House. Part of Voigt's success comes in the fact that she has grown as an artist. Whereas her early Isoldes displayed the crude aspects of her voice in a mere attempt to get through the role, Voigt now picks her moments and pays closer attention to when she should employ all her vocal reserve and when she should hold back. Her dramatic embodiment of Isolde has also improved immensely. Voigt teased and toyed with Tristan in Act I, gave herself totally to him in Act II, and showed overtures of the empty ecstasy during Marke's monologue that she would develop fully during her Liebestod. Her performance was, in a word, flawless. Yet we saw in this Isolde not only Voigt's total potential as a singer, but also her ability to grow as an artist.

The strongest performance of the night, however, came from Clifton Forbis as Tristan. The American tenor—who has sung the role at Paris, La Scala, and Berlin Staatsoper, among others—gave a superbly intelligent assumption of Tristan, both dramatically and vocally. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of singing Tristan is the vocal pacing required simply to make it to the end of the opera: the Act II love duet calls for some of the most difficult heldentenor singing in the entire repertoire, leading into the Act III 'mad scene,' which quite possibly is the most difficult heldentenor passage. Forbis navigated Act II with great attention not to let his voice get away from him—a prospect made even more difficult by the dramatic passion created by the chemistry he had with Voigt. This caution paid off in Act III, when Forbis gave a profoundly gut-wrenching, no holds barred rendition of Tristan's monologue at full voice, with ringing top and plenty of support. This was his moment. He writhed about the stage, clung to Kurwenal in his delusion and encroaching madness, and let his baritonal voice pierce through the dense Wagnerian orchestration with an ease that few Tristans today share. This was a Tristan for the ages, a Tristan that held nothing back and pushed himself both vocally and dramatically to and past his limits.

The supporting cast rose to the same levels as the title characters. German mezzo Petra Lang as Brangäne took a little while to warm up in her Lyric Opera debut. When she found her comfort zone, however, she began to spin luxuriously long, rich, flowing lines that showed her at her finest. Her rendition of the tower scene in Act II brought some of the most gorgeous and inspired music of the night, both from Lang herself and the orchestra. She played a convincing mirror to Isolde's emotions, and while her acting can sometimes get away from her, she can't be faulted for doing too much instead of too little.

Dutch bass Stephen Milling, also in his house debut, sang a formidable King Marke. His commanding physical presence seems at times at odds with the mellifluousness of his rich voice, but it fits perfectly for his character. Milling gave an effectively nuanced portrayal of the betrayed king—often, basses play the Act II monologue as almost a recital piece or, on the other extreme, with incessant pacing. Milling found the happy medium between the two, maintaining nobility despite his turmoil. It was, however, difficult to ignore the fact that Milling had difficulty with the top of his range—the rich bass he produces gives way to a strange, swallowed sound around D.

American baritone Jason Stearns, who served in the Army for more than twenty years, was an effectively gruff Kurwenal. Stearns is a heldenbariton in the traditional sense, with an easy top that rings out clearly and forcefully. He will sing the first three performances, after which Greer Grimsley will take over the role for the rest of the run (the two American baritones, who both make their company debuts, have replaced Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo, who was to have made his Lyric debut before having an emergency surgery).

It would be hard to overstate the superb performance from both Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Of all the works in Davis' repertoire, the German oeuvre seems to give him the most inspiration. His previous Wagnerian performances serve as a perfect example of this very inspiration, and his passionate conducting of Lulu (read here) earlier this season further solidified his expertise. This Tristan und Isolde, however, seems to have taken his prowess to another level. Davis kept the orchestra together during some of the most frenzied moments in the opera, yet let it burst forth at the right moments. The British conductor worried little about drowning out his singers given the collective ample vocal size they brought to the production. This freedom allowed him to raise the Lyric orchestra to its most powerful level, exploring some of the "other" nuances within Wagner's score often lost due to the need to keep the orchestra down during the most strenuous vocal lines.

David Hockney's production, brought in from Los Angeles Opera, has few changes. The Act III lighting uses slightly different shades, and a few costumes have undergone minor tweaks. On the whole, though, it remains the same. Lighting director Duane Schuler deserves much credit for the temporal lighting shifts during Act II, although his crew could make the "offstage" lights in Act III more "offstage" than they were on opening night. Overall, the production boasts well its lush design with bright, bold colors both in sets and costumes.

Few experiences in the opera house rival a great Tristan und Isolde. Producing such a performance, however, requires not only flawless singing and intelligent vocal pacing from the opera's principals, but also a true commitment on the part of the cast to psychological, nuanced portrayals of their characters. Lyric Opera of Chicago's Tristan und Isolde showcased a cast that excelled in both areas—a cast that deserved all the superlatives lauded from the crowd after one of the most electrifying nights in Lyric's recent history.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago

Paul Wooley



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