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Tristan und Isolde continues to conquer the Lyric

Lyric Opera
02/12/2009 -  and January 27, 31, and February 4, 8, 16*, 20, 24, 28
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Clifton Forbis (Tristan), Jennifer Wilson (Isolde), Petra Lang (Brangäne), Stephen Milling (King Marke), Greer Grimsley (Kurwenal, February 12, 16, 20, 24, 28), Jason Stearns (Kurwenal January 27, 31, February 4, 8), 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)

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s banner Tristan und Isolde, in a revival of the kaleidoscopic David Hockney production on loan from Los Angeles Opera, has gone some distance in positively validating the state of Wagner singing today. The opening night of January 27 has already been deftly covered in these pages by correspondent Paul Wooley (read here)
The performance of February 12 was also notable for a pair of cast changes, planned, and unplanned.

Soprano Jennifer Wilson is familiar to the WNO public, and became particularly so to Chicago audiences when she jumped into the breach for an indisposed Jane Eaglen in Lyric’s Götterdämmerung (she was the announced Gutrune) some years ago. Her progress has been followed with interest by locals, and her readiness for a potential Isolde was an exciting prospect. Ms. Wilson got her chance on the 12th due to the regrettable illness of Deborah Voigt, and turned in an excellent account of the Irish princess; one distinguished by singular power and beauty of timbre as well as intelligently deployed interpretive instincts. It is probably unfair to draw comparisons with her formidable soprano colleague – but frankly, it is also inevitable, and in the event Wilson needn’t dread such examination. It could be fairly said that her traversal of this most challenging of soprano roles was understandably less polished than Voigt’s, but the strength of her achievement was undeniable. This is one impressive voice, voluminous and gleaming, with an attractive splash of cream, and used with great taste and sensitivity. Ms. Wilson is a large woman, but as was the case with Voigt before her much-discussed weight loss, is femininely graceful, quite attractive, and proved herself a most responsive actress. Given the lack of extensive rehearsal, one would not expect the romantic interplay with her Tristan to quite achieve the intimate eroticism as was the case with Ms. Voigt, and it didn’t, but there was a telling chemistry between the pair. The Liebestod was lovely, beautiful phrased and infinitely moving. When the substitution was announced, a disappointed groan swept across the house – which only made the ecstatic ovation Wilson received in the final calls all the more satisfying. It was a prodigious success, and this is an artist to watch very closely.

Greer Grimsley’s undertaking of Kurwenal was of course expected, and was delivered with all the interpretive polish and virile, refulgent tone his many admirers have come to expect from him – this was a most notable house debut.

The production continues to be superbly anchored however, by the Tristan of Clifton Forbis, whose work on this particular evening possibly surpassed his performance on opening night, fine as that was. The tenor is an interesting case; one might be forgiven for initially finding his timbre a bit grainy and constricted in quality - but to stop there would be to deny oneself the pleasure of one of the most exciting heldentenor performances seen at Lyric for quite some time. Mr. Forbis provided a wealth of viscerally masculine tone, and is moreover a handsome man and an intelligent operatic actor who consistently displayed a perceptive emotional response to text, verbally and musically. The third act was flat-out fabulous; Tristan’s grueling monologue was given complete, and delivered with a seemingly bottomless reserve of physical and emotional energy. I last encountered Forbis in an Otello at Ravinia, and was guilty on that occasion of rather damning him with faint praise; I now fall before him, capitulated and conquered as Morold’s Ireland, and joyfully wave a white flag in his direction. The man was magnificent.

Stephen Milling’s beautifully intoned Marke continues to leave one wishing his mammoth Act Two monologue was even longer; how often does that happen? Petra Lang repeated her sympathetic Brangäne.

David Portillo and Paul Corona loaned effective support as the Sailor and Steersman. Tenor Edward Mout’s mellifluously youthful timbre was a delight as the Shepherd. Daniel Billings was a trifle out of his element as Melot, and the gifted young bass-baritone was not helped by the costume design, which did his particular mien no favors. Yes, Hockney’s work is theatrical visual art and all that, but I think some tweaking might have been allowed without engendering cries of desecration.

Beyond that, Hockney’s production, sensibly if perhaps a bit uninspiringly paced by José María Condemi, remains a visual delight that should satisfy traditionalists while colorfully pushing the visual envelope a touch. Duane Schuler’s lighting was predictably superb. Sir Andrew Davis led a thrilling account of the score, and the orchestra responded beautifully to his direction, a few minor glitches in the winds heard opening night nary to be found. Tristan remains a pinnacle of operatic performance challenge – one here most satisfyingly met in the Windy City.

Mark Thomas Ketterson



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