After all the drama surrounding Deborah Voigt’s withdrawal as Isolde in the Washington National Opera’s opening production, “Tristan und Isolde,” the company came back with a solidly cast production that was enormously affecting. In rehearsals, it seems Voigt found the role too much for the current state of her voice and dropped out over Labor Day weekend. She spoke candidly about the decision with my colleague, Anne Midgette, in an article many of us found a model for how to handle a tough, potentially humiliating situation: straight on, with grace and humor. She left her fans with happy memories of a tough, honest and no-nonsense artist.
The Swedish soprano Irene Theorin replaced Voigt, and while it might have been disappointing to anyone who compared Theorin with memories of Voigt in her prime, it was nonetheless an entirely creditable, well-acted and emotionally engaged performance. Theorin has two voices: There is a lovely, intimate instrument, small and flexible, with golden hues; and a larger, more powerful sound that gets turned on from time to time when she needs the power. This second voice, used judiciously, allows the singer to negotiate all the Wagnerian essentials, but it doesn’t have a lot of color or character, and sometimes it seems a bit disconnected from the smaller instrument, as if the two voices aren’t quite on the same continuum. But it’s not shrill, or forced either, and it certainly cuts through the orchestra at all the requisite moments. Theorin is clearly comfortable with this role, especially its psychological progression from manic, wounded girl to besotted lover to mature, determined, self-controlled woman. The Liebestod, the extended final aria in which Isolde follows Tristan into death through sheer force of will, wasn’t a sumptuous, overflowing sonic spectacle, but it was attentive to the drama and the text, and when she finished, Theorin simply lay down with dignity and shut down her life force. Philosophically, the “love-death” is Wagnerian pseudo-psychology at its most odious, but Theorin made it believable, without succumbing to melodrama.
Ian Storey sang Tristan, not with a ringing, heroic tenor, but with a voice more than equal to the part and, like Theorin, more powerful in the intimate moments than the grand ones. And yet, again like Theorin, the sound is never unpleasant or strained. He managed to make the Act III monologue, a rumination on desire, will and death, gripping in its philosophical intensity, and his ghastly decision to allow his wounds to flow and bleed out his own life was a horrifying moment of pure Wagnerian insanity.
Conductor Philippe Auguin and the orchestra deserve special comment. They were the real stars of the afternoon. I’m not sure I’ve heard the opera orchestra play this well: With a full-blooded, blended sound and many spectacular individual solos, especially from the cor anglais and bass clarinet. The tempos were fast but not manic, and the pacing–the push and pull of Wagnerian time–was natural and the string sound deliciously muscular.
The Chilean baritone, Javier Arrey, whom I admired at this summer’s Castleton Festival (as Iago), sang the small role of Melot, but sang it so clearly, cleanly and with such a robust sound it made a strong favorable impression. And Yuri Gorodetski as both the Act I sailor and the Act III shepherd was a delight.
The production is simple, with a single basic set (credited, mysteriously, not to a designer but simply “Opera Australia”) serving for all three acts. Diaphanous curtains frame the action, which takes place on a transparent deck suspended from cables that suggest a ship’s rigging. The lighting is blunt and colorful, following the cues of Wagner’s text, so obsessed with the portentous references to night and day. Neil Armfield’s direction was smart and efficient, though a couple of key moments, especially the discovery of the lovers by King Mark and his minions in Act II, were anti-climactic.
Quibbles aside, the opera worked both musically and dramatically. “Tristan,” is a long show, and it can be a dreadfully static one. But Auguin, and an intelligent cast, made it feel radical, intense and desperate.
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