Music / Opera / Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, Deborah Voigt as Isolde

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Deborah Voigt and Clifton Forbis in Tristan und Isolde. Photo Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
Deborah Voigt and Clifton Forbis in Tristan und Isolde. Photo Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Tristan und Isolde
Richard Wagner
Libretto by the composer
Lyric Opera of Chicago,  January 27, 2009
Lyric Opera Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis conductor

Tristan —  Clifton Forbis
Isolde – Deborah Voigt
Brangäne – Petra Lang
Kurwenal – Jason Stearns
King Mark – Stephen Milling

Production designer – David Hockney
Lighting designer – Duane Schuler
Chorus Master – Donald Nally
Stage Director – José Maria Condemi

The history of opera in Chicago is old, and like that of the city itself varied and colorful. Performances are attested as early as 1850, and no less than six companies mounted productions in the first part of the twentieth century, in different venues, most notably Louis Sullivan’s great Auditorium Theater, now given over to musicals and university commencements, but the place where Tamagno and Sembrich, de Reszke and Fremstad, Caruso and Tettrazini once sang.  Women have always been important in Chicago operatic management.  Mary Garden was director of the resident company in 1910-11, when the French repertoire had pride of place; in 1954 socialite and amateur singer Carol Fox founded with Lawrence Kelly and conductor Nicola Rescigno what is now the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which gives its season in the massive Civic Opera House on Wacker Drive, built by utilities magnate Samuel Insull and opened on the eve of the Great Depression.  It was meant to be an egalitarian midwestern theater, where all the boxes are at the back.  Visitors are warned to opt for seats in the front portion of the orchestra or risk feeling that they are watching the stage from another planet. William Mason expertly heads the company today; his association with the Lyric began in the 1950’s when he sang the shepherd boy in Tosca.

The first five years of Lyric’s life remain its golden age.  It was an Italian house that catered to Italian stars carefully cultivated by Carol Fox.  Tebaldi, del Monaco, di Stefano, Bergonzi, Simionato, Bastianini, and Gobbi were heard routinely.  Bjoerling, Tucker, Nilsson, and Price sang as well, the last two before their New York debuts.  The most deluxe season was perhaps 1955, when one could have heard a refulgent Tebaldi in Aida on November 4th, and on the 5th Trovatore with Callas and Bjoerling.  The Greek diva had sung both Norma and Lucia the previous year.  Casting was almost profligately rich, as in a 1958 production of Pagliacci, when Cornell MacNeil unleashed his pealing top voice in the Prologue, and Tito Gobbi, never happy above F, sang Tonio in the rest of the opera.

The first Wagner the house ventured was Tristan und Isolde in the same 1958 season, with Birgit Nilsson and Karl Liebl in the title roles.  A legendary performance preceded them on the Civic Opera stage in 1939, when Kirsten Flagstad had persuaded her friend Giovanni Martinelli to learn Tristan.  Not a note of the evening appears to have been preserved, but tenors may take some comfort in contemporary reviews of Martinelli.  His German diction was praised, but this most clarion of Italian voices was judged incapable of penetrating a Wagnerian orchestra.  After 1958 Tristan did not appear in the Lyric repertoire until it was revived for Jon Vickers in 1979 and 1982.  He was a force of nature in the part, albeit trimmed in Acts II and III, but his Isoldes were weak, perhaps by design.  The Seattle production of the opera with Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen came to Chicago in 1999, and was eagerly welcomed. Heppner’s appearances were, however, compromised by the vocal and health issues that have plagued him ever since he began singing the opera, and Eaglen, while in many places vocally impressive, proved dramatically (and physically) inert.

A scene from Act I of Tristan und Isolde, starring Deborah Voigt and Clifton Forbis in the title roles, directed by José María Condemi with set design by David Hockney. Photo Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
A scene from Act I of Tristan und Isolde, starring Deborah Voigt and Clifton Forbis in the title roles, directed by José María Condemi with set design by David Hockney. Photo Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

This season Tristan has returned as a vehicle for Deborah Voigt, who sang her first Salome in the house two years ago. She appears in the production by David Hockney originally conceived for the Los Angeles Opera in 1987.  The artist’s creation of child-like fantasy worlds can be effective in an opera like Turandot.  But there is no more adult work in the repertoire than Tristan, and Wagner’s drama was not well served by these sets and costumes.  The saturated primary colors, the cardboard cut-out swords, the Christmas pageant king – I found all of it a fourth grade distraction from the musical and philosophical seriousness of the piece.  Matters were not helped by the amateurish staging of José Maria Condemi.  He deserves credit for attempting to follow Wagner’s detailed instructions for the singers’ movements after they drink the love potion.  Otherwise the protagonists seemed left to their own devices, while any scene involving action, particularly sword-play, was poorly managed to the point of risibility.  The steeply raked stage presented difficulties; Kurwenal appeared to be mountain-climbing when in Act III he runs from Tristan’s bed to his lookout and back. No consistent artistic decision was ever made on the question of realism vs. stylization, a problem inherent, it seems to me, in David Hockney’s designs themselves.

Musically the company’s director Sir Andrew Davis was more successful.  He is a quixotic conductor, apt to disappoint in Mozart, where one would expect a former director at Glyndebourne to shine, and to be surprisingly effective in the bigger repertoire, where his sense of inner tension and forward propulsion can be very exciting if rarely profound.  This was a fast Tristan, four and a half hours with intermissions versus five hours ten minutes in the current Metropolitan production under Daniel Barenboim.  Some of the difference can be counted up to cuts.  Sir Andrew removed the traditional ten minutes from the second act, and made another unfortunate excision in the Klagelied, Isolde’s mourning over Tristan’s body in Act III.  This last cut is inexplicable to me except in connection to Deborah Voigt’s finding the Liebestod hard going and not wanting to be overtaxed before she starts it.  No excuse.  For Wagner the Lyric’s orchestra is always augmented by ringers; still there was both an admirable unity of intention and beautiful section work, especially from the strings, who played the upward sweeping motive in the Prelude with lustrous sound and perfect ensemble.  The cors anglais deserves notice for a sensitive reading of the shepherd’s mournful piping.  As is true of much of Tristan’s score, music like this had never existed before, and it continues to astonish at every hearing.

Both critics and the public were determined to see a triumph in Deborah Voigt’s Isolde, but to me her vocalism in the part is neither healthy nor pleasing to the ear.  She is forty-seven now, and it is hard to know how much changes in her voice are due to age and how much to her drastic weight loss after gastric surgery.  But the creamy richness that can be heard, for example, in her wonderful 1993 Chrysothemis on YouTube, is completely gone, leaving behind harsh sonics and a wide, rattling vibrato.  I noticed first in her Salome a tendency to belt high notes, which has now become pervasive.  They are reached – no doubt about the two C’s in the second act – and they are loud, but she has paid a price in her loss of flexibility and control in other parts of the voice.  At this point it is impossible for her to sing a simple scale truly in tono. Chromatic movement is particularly difficult, the Mir erkoren, mir verloren hair-raisingly out of tune.  The final F# of the Liebestod is also problematic.  Try as she will to place the note precisely, in the four times I have heard her sing it it has been consistently flat.  She is an intelligent singer, and has made the text her own, but she is not a dramatic soprano and has distorted her natural sound trying to make herself into one.

The American Heldentenor Clifton Forbis was Tristan, and he did sing to the end without apparent tiring.  But he has developed a technique that makes very hard the meaningful expression of emotion.  In some sense what he does is not singing at all, but the highly artificial production of a series of sounds, which he arranges quite efficiently in a thick baritonal way.  I would prefer to hear Ben Heppner crack.  Petra Lang made an unsympathetic Brangäne, looking pinched and mean and sounding by turns foggy and acidulous.  Her acoustic positioning in the Watch was unfortunate, in that she overwhelmed the extraordinarily beautiful orchestral writing at this point with grating tone, slightly sharp, and labored breathing.  Jason Stearns’ Kurwenal left no particular impression. The discovery of the evening was the Danish bass Stephen Milling.  His voice is hampered by lack of a serviceable top, but up to middle C he sang with gorgeous authentic bass tone, classic legato, and an uncommonly sensitive appreciation of the words.  This was the first performance of Tristan I have heard where the vocal and dramatic highlight was King Mark’s monologue.

All this said, I came away from Lyric’s Tristan very happy to have been in the theater and determined to come back. There is in theology the principle Ecclesia supplet.  If through human weakness some element of a sacramental action is deficient, “the Church supplies.”  Something similar is true of Wagner’s operas.  The glories of the music will always compensate for flaws in performance, and despite its blemishes this occasion reminded me once again why Tristan belongs in that small group of masterpieces that have not only changed the course of musical history, but which, in Wagner’s words, reveal to us “the inner movements of the soul.”  Lyric Opera’s patrons must be grateful to the company for staging it.

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