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Tristan & Isolde: Dallas does Grand Opera

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The Dallas Opera has moved into the stratosphere with its current production of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan & Isolde.” For those who love grand opera, it just doesn’t get any better.


The grand opera experience is not for everyone. Wagner’s 1856 masterpiece runs four-and-a-half hours, with two intermissions. The story of Wagner’s star-crossed lovers is no retelling of Romeo and Juliet. There is no comic relief, no jester to lighten things up a bit. The characters are layered and complex and the music is big, bold and in your face. But, if big, bold and in your face is your thing, this performance will take your breath away.

Christopher Anderson, who provided the entertaining and informational pre-opera lecture, summed up the effect Wagner’s music has on us with a quote by Gottfried Leibniz: Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.

Not only is the music in this production big, bold and pleasurable, the Dallas Opera's stage design is otherworldly – in a good way.

Projection director Elaine J. McCarthy has taken the Winspear’s huge bare stage and transformed it into a ship, a castle and the hero’s death bed. And she sets the scene with surreal images projected onto moving scrims, a backdrop and the stage floor. McCarthy’s ability to blend new world technology with an old world art form should be adopted by every performance art company on the planet.

McCarthy’s vision is especially effective during the second act, when the heroic soldier Tristan and his Irish princess, Isolde, spend a rapturous night alone in her room. Although pledged to marry Tristan’s mentor, King Marke, Isolde falls under a magic love potion and declares her undying loyalty to Tristan. The lighting works to enhance the lovers’ passion and desire, even though the stage contains nothing but a square bed.

Tenor Clifton Forbis and soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet must possess the endurance of iron man athletes.

Not only do they carry the opera with their magnificent voices, they do it while in full costume, wigs and make-up, while moving around on a raked (angled away from the audience) stage, which has to present its own set of issues  when actions calls for characters to lie on the floor or share an embrace on the bed.

Forbis, who hails from Tennessee but currently serves as the chair of the voice department at Southern Methodist University, is a formidable Wagnerian star and a TDO veteran, having starred in the opera’s inaugural performance of “Othello.” His understanding of the music and his character echoed through the hall from beginning to end.

As the doomed hero Tristan, Forbis was completely believeable. Not once did he falter, even during his protracted death scene at the end of Act III when he must have been exhausted. Bravo!

Miss Charbonnet soared as the fiery Isolde. Her voice should be declared a national treasure. Singing with that much passion for over four hours should have left her exhausted, yet at the end of Act III, energy literally sparked from her fingertips, jumping over the footlights and into the hearts of her approving audience. Brava!

Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, a native of Iceland, brought a looming presence to the role of King Marke. His steel-reinforced vocals, coupled with a powerful physicality, made for a remarkable Dallas Opera debut. I hope to hear more from him in future productions.


“Tristan and Isolde” runs Wednesday, Feb. 22, and Saturday, Feb. 25. Flex subscriptions are still available, beginning at just $75, and single tickets start at $25.

Contact the Dallas Opera Box Office at 214-443-1000 or purchase online at dallasopera.org.



Comments (2)Add Comment
written by terrymathews , February 27, 2012
I thought the setting/staging was perfect. I was totally intrigued by the use of technology instead of clunky sets. This is the first time I've seen projections, etc. used like this at the Dallas Opera, but I hope to see more.

As for the two singers being overpowered ... I have found in the Winspear, where you sit sometimes determines how the voices are perceived. Sometimes, the orchestra can overpower the singers in one section of the hall, while the audience in other locations hear a perfect balance. In Lucia, earlier this year, the final aria on the staircase was overpowered by the orchestra ... however, friends in another spot in the hall said they heard every note perfectly. Our seats for T&I allowed for a lovely and well-balance exchange between orchestra and singers. Sorry your experience was decidedly average.


For our readers who might not know what the Liebestod is ... here's what Wikipedia says:

Liebestod (German, "Love death") is the title of the final, dramatic aria from the opera Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner. When used as a literary term, liebestod (from German Liebe, love and tod, death) refers to the theme of erotic death or "love death" meaning the two lovers' consummation of their love in death or after death. Two-sided examples include Pyramus and Thisbe, Tristan und Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, and to some degree Wuthering Heights. One-sided examples are Porphyria's Lover and The Sorrows of Young Werther. The joint suicide of Heinrich von Kleist and lover Henriette Vogel is often associated with the liebestod theme.

Note: Wagner originally called the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde the Liebestod; he referred to the final aria in a concert version with no singer as the Verklaerung (meaning transfiguration). Modern usage is to use Liebestod to refer to the final aria, as in this article, which is obviously wrong. There is no hint in the score that Isolde actually dies, although this is a common assumption in modern reception of the opera.

The aria opens with the line "Mild und Leise", which means "mildly and softly" in German. It is the climactic moment of the opera, ending the opera as Isolde sings over Tristan's body.
written by a guest , February 26, 2012
I completely disagree with the glowing comments on Tristan and Isolde.

My primary issue was with the set design. After seeing a few cycles of The Ring from the Met this year, I guess the minimalist projection set style is now in vogue. Simply stated, the Dallas version of this fell far short. Compared to the machinery used for projection in Gotterdammerung - the Dallas version was too simple with no 'oomph'.

My second complaint was the Liebestod - overall. Ms Charbonnet was overpowered by the orchestra. You may say to balme that on the orchestra, but simply Meier or Nilsson would dominate any orchestra. The floating motes or whatever they were supposed to be were a distraction from one of the most powerful scenes in all of opera.

It is very difficult to rate this opera much better than decidedly average.

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