Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Forbis, Voigt Brilliant as Lyric’s Tristan and Isolde – Chicago, February 24, 2009

February 27th, 2009

The 1987 David Hockney production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, one of the treasures of the Los Angeles Opera, traveled to the mid-continent for the first time for nine performances at Chicago’s Lyric Opera.

Lyric’s headliner was its Isolde, Deborah Voigt. Although 12 days earlier, she had been indisposed for one performance (which proved an opportunity for  Chicago operagoers to hear Jennifer Wilson, who by all reports is an important Wagnerian soprano voice), Voigt seemed in fine fettle for the performance I attended.

At that performance, a pre-curtain announcement was made that the Tristan, Clifton Forbis, would be singing that night even though he was suffering from a  bad cold that had plagued him for a week, although I suspect few in the audience detected any real diminution of the solid performance one expects from this heldentenor.

[Below: Tristan (Clifton Forbis) presents his sword to Isolde (Deborah Voigt); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

The supporting cast for the lead tenor and soprano were excellent. When Juha Uusitalo had to withdraw from the production for medical reasons, Greer Grimsley, fresh from triumphant performances of  Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” (See Grimsley Memorable in San Diego Opera’s Quasi-Traditional “Tosca” – January 27, 2009) stepped in for five of Uusitalo’s scheduled Kurwenals, and demonstrated why the Grimsley portrayal of Tristan’s main man and fellow Breton is one of his most celebrated roles.

Tristan’s sovereign and Isolde’s bridegroom, King Marke, was sung by the sonorous Danish basso profondo, Stephen Milling, who surely should be regarded as among the finest contemporary Markes.

The Melot was Daniel Billings, who made a good impression in this role. Melot sings only a few lines but, as Tristan’s betrayer-slayer, is the one true action figure in an opera that tends towards cerebral reflection and self-analysis of one’s emotional states.

[Below: David Hockney’s sets for Act I of “Tristan und Isolde”‘; edited image, based on a  Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera.]

Petra Lang, whose wild abandonment as Venus in Wagner’s “Tannhauser” in San Francisco and San Diego left vivid impressions in both of two quite different productions (See Charismatic S. F. “Tannhauser” – October 12, 2007 and  Wagner Knows Best: Elegant San Diego Opera “Tannhauser” Sticks to the Story – January 26, 2008 ), was an approrpriately restrained Brangaene. (Too much stage action by performers of this seemingly dour character can easily appear to be overacting).

Lang has a beautiful mezzo which complemented Voigt’s creamy soprano, and she has the dramatic instincts that complement Voigt’s high strung Irish Queen. Brangaene should be played as a deeply conflicted woman, loyal to her mistress when she feels she must be, but betraying her wishes when moral considerations require that she not carry them out.

For a moment, let’s leave the performance review and consider the story that Wagner created. Over the decades it seems that the title characters are victims, as is the wronged King Marke. Many think of Brangaene as a character who unwittingly brought grief to the lovers, and that Melot is just an evil guy.

I think it is possible to reshuffle the sentiments, with the view of “rehabilitating” Brangaene and Melot, even if such a rehabilitation seems to be at the expense of the lovers. In this rethinking of the six main characters, Marke’s nobility and Kurwenal’s loyalty remain intact.

In Defense of Brangaene

What Isolde demands of Brangaene is that she engineer a murder-suicide. In effect, Brangaene would be complicit in assassinating the King’s most important functionary, his leading knight, and facilitating his queen’s death. Such actions would be unambiguously treasonous towards a country with which Brangaene’s native land has just entered a treaty of peace.

Many are hard on Brangaene. To me there is no question that her act (substituting the love potion) is a more responsible choice than what Isolde is requiring her to do, in that it (1) diverts Isolde from murder and self-destruction to a realization of her deep love of Tristan and (2) simultaneously removes Tristan’s inhibitions to reciprocate that love, whatever its consequences.

In the second act, it is clear that she is working through the consequences of her defensible act of disobedience That she is defending a couple engaged in high risk behavior is evident, but she understands that even though what she has done may well have dangerous results, it is the saner choice than what Isolde wanted her to do. And, as she takes on the role of the lovers’ protector, she correctly identifies the person who will become their nemesis.

In Defense of Melot

It is not Brangaene that brings about the lovers’ doom.  The indiscretion is that of Tristan, who bypasses the trustworthy Kurwenal to confide in Melot. But by involving Melot, Tristan forces, in effect, Melot to choose between loyalty to his King or to his friend,. (Kurwenal would have always chosen loyalty to Tristan, his countryman in this foreign land). It is Melot who has to deal with Tristan’s confession to him that he is cuckolding his king.

Of course, those of us who love this opera, hate the idea of Melot being the agent who destroys the lovers’ liebesnacht and who inflicts Tristan’s fatal wound. But, having sworn to be the liege man of the king, why should Melot be ensnared in a plot that appears destructive of the marriage that was arranged to secure the future of the Cornwall Kingdom?

Note the personal danger in which Melot has been placed. If he allows Tristan to get away with his betrayal of Marke, Melot is complicit. But for Melot to raise the issue with the King, he knows that he literally must stake his own life on his ability to prove his accusation. Melot’s moral dilemma is even greater and the personal consequences even more certainly lethal than Brangaene’s.

Wagner Knows Best:  Jose Maria Condemi as Stage Director

Obviously, Wagner has created a libretto that sustains analysis of the motivations of the principal actors. One of the responsibilities of opera company managements is to bring in stage directors that are respectful of the material with which they are dealing. Lyric Opera chose Jose Maria Condemi, in what may arguably be his most important directing assignment to date.

A former Fulbright scholar, the Argentinian director was a recent San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow (one of the rare non-singing fellowships awarded in this prestigious program), in which he experienced numerous “assistant director” assignments with major stage directors. One of those was Thor Steingraber, who directed San Francisco Opera’s 2006 mounting of the Hockney production.

Steingraber had responsiblity for both the 2006 San Francisco and 2008 Los Angeles Opera revivals of Hockney’s masterpiece of set design. Steingraber’s stage direction was insightful, but sometimes quite non-traditional. Steingraber facilitated Tristan’s resurrection at the end of Isolde’s final third act aria, the Liebestod, so that the two lovers are transcendent as the orchestral resolution of the restive themes of love and death takes place. I liked this decidedly non-textual sentiment, but I am aware that many people found it awkward and gimmicky.

Rather than exploring directions  that some contemporary directors feel are needed to interest modern audiences (or, perhaps, simply to show that things can be done differntly), Condemi’s approach follows Wagner’s stated intentions. His directorial energy appears in encouraging his principals (all intelligent actors) to display the emotional state of the characters, with stage movements that express the words they are singing.

Such movements may more often than not in this introspective work, simply consist of standing still, trembling, or exhibiting a shudder that reflects the character’s inner turmoil. “Stand and sing” may not be the ideal way of presenting operas of Donizetti or Verdi, but “Tristan” is often made more dramatic by minimizing movement that does not fit Wagner’s words and music.

Hockney Knows Best: Sets and Costumes as World Art Treasures

The Los Angeles Hockney production has been reviewed twice on this website (See  The Runnicles, Hockney “Tristan” in S. F. – October 22, 2006 and   Liebesnacht: Treleaven’s Triumphant Tristan and Watson’s Wondrous Isolde at L. A. Opera – January 23, 2008 .)

It has been a theme of this website that many of the world’s opera productions should be considered works of art, but because of their physical bulk and the costs associated with storing them, no one appears to advocate for their preservation as part of the art world’s heritage.

I suspect there is a preference of some production designers that there not exist a large world inventory of productions of a work they are about to design. When that sentiment is reinforced by opera managements that don’t want to hold old sets for an opera for which they are planning a new production, sets are discarded and destroyed that should not have been.  (As an example that this website often gives, two decades after Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s accidental death, much of the world’s heritage of Ponnelle’s work has vanished.)

I think David Hockney has convinced the wider public that at least Hockney’s sets, and the elegant Ian Falconer costumes that were created for them, should be sacrosanct, and that the “Tristan” is the most valuable of all. Hockney has immeasurably enhanced the survival chances of this production by his lectures and interviews on the interrelationships of the story, music, sets, costumes and lighting of “Tristan”. One of the phrases now indelibly associated with Hockney is that of “seeing music through the eyes”.

Hockney clearly intended that the beautiful sets and intriguing shapes would be transformed by the lighting, and one can imagine this production being one on which the world’s master lighting designers display their particular genius to the task of  lighting these sets. Lyric Opera’s choice of Duane Schuler, truly a master, brought often unique, but always fascinating, perspectives to the production’s lighting design.

[Below: an illicit love affair is uncovered through the ruse of a night hunt; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera.]

One of the endless joys of the Hockney production (which I have seen mounted in five different years) is its relationship to the world’s artistic heritage. Note the Turkish looking uniforms of King Marke’s men (above) that they wear on the “night hunt in the forest” that is a ruse for Melot’s entrapment of Tristan and Isolde. Note the homage to the painting of 15th century Florentine artist Paolo Uccello, whose forest night hunters are also dressed alla turca.

[Below: Paolo Uccello’s painting “The Forest Hunt at Night”‘, courtesy of the Paolo Uccello Virtual Gallery.]

However, my most vivid impressions of Lyric Opera’s 2009 revival of the transcendent Hockney production, are the third act performances by Forbis and Voigt, and the interplay of superb conducting by Sir Andrew Davis of the world class Lyric Opera Orchestra, with Schuler’s illumination of Hockney’s conceptualization of the coast of Brittainy. Chicago saw and heard a third act that truly incorporated all of Hockney’s theories of engaging all of the senses in a performance of “Tristan”.

I have seen the work many times, including such memorable events as Birgit Nilsson’s Isolde to one of master Wagnerian Wolfgang Windgassen’s late career Tristans and the youthful Jess Thomas’ first Tristan. I knew Act III, one of my personal favorites in all of opera, would be good, with Voigt and Grimsley in fine voice, a great conductor and opera orchestra and my very favorite “Tristan” production, intelligently lit and nicely directed in the two preceding acts.

The unknown was Forbis, whose struggles with his cold had been announced. His first two acts had been within the mainstream of current Tristan performances. Forbis’ voice was a bit tight and sometimes nasally, but one  should never judge how a Tristan will sound in the third act on how he performed in the first two.

No act is more treacherous for a tenor. I have always thought that one of the dictionary definitions of stamina should be the vocal requirements for a tenor to sing Tristan’s third act. The sound is often baritonal, often sotto voce, and often requiring a full-throated sound at full volume – while histrionically demonstrating to the audience a man who moves in and out of delirium throughout the act.

[ Below: David Hockney’s Act III sets for “Tristan und Isolde”; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera.]

I can report that Forbis’ performance was amazing, heroic, breathtaking in its range of vocal color. He was master of the soft passages that require a particular approach to breath control, but was also the full-throated heldentenor when expressing his premonition of the arrival of Isolde’s ship or when he ripped off the bandages that had up until then stopped his bleeding. Although I have admired Forbis’ ventures into the French heroic repertory (Exotic Immersion: “Samson” in S. F. – September 11, 2007), his Tristan, particularly his consummate performance in the third act, exceeded even my generous expectations.

Those who were able to see the Lyric Opera “Tristan und Isolde” had a wonderful treat.

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