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VOA's Touring Tristan und Isolde: Wagner Lite but a Delight, Mostly

February 20, 2005 - Richmond, VA:


Online notices and a favorable Washington Post review of Virginia Opera Association's ambitious and enterprising touring production of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre in the fall of 2002 lured me across the border for the first of many satisfying matinees in Richmond. That Virginia premiere was followed this spring with the Commonwealth's first performances of the composer's revolutionary Tristan und Isolde. Both productions shared the over-all vision of Stage Director Lillian Groag, the firm and well balanced conducting of VOA Artistic Director Peter Mark, and a rising talent among today's crop of tenors. Unlike the earlier Ring opera, this production was heavily cut. The rather fast-paced live Bayreuth recording of the opera by Karl Böhm has the three acts timing at 75," 72," and 72." VOA cut about ten minutes from the first act and around twenty minutes from the other two. Nevertheless, there was much to enjoy in the February 20 performance, given in the beautifully restored Landmark Theater, formerly known as the Mosque.

While "perfect Wagnerites" properly cringe (or worse) at the prospect of "bleeding chunks" of Wagner being sliced off, a case can be made for some cuts in our imperfect age of Wagner singing. In his Post review (2/11/05) of this VOA production, Tim Page quotes Mark's comments that the cuts were made in "consideration of the two leading singers, ... performing the roles for the first time," and also "for the sake of dramatic pacing for [the] audiences, who are accustomed to three-hour operas.'" Since the retirement of the towering "gods" -- Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior -- few mortals have been able to withstand the roles. Placido Domingo recorded Tristan with the aid of long rests between sessions and has refused to do the role on stage. An uncut performance could cut young singers careers short. And when Spoleto USA staged Menotti's superb version of Parsifal in 1990, the audience was by midnight more than decimated. "Perfect Wagnerites" won't fill a hall for rising young singers in our region, and modern audiences grow restless at even three-hour operas.

Though only identified as the "Tristan and Isolde Orchestra" in the program book, a violist confirmed my suspicion that the some 61 players are members of the Norfolk-based Virginia Symphony. All sections of the ensemble played superbly. The horns were simply outstanding in their many demanding and subtle passages such as the gradually-receding sounds of the hunting horns at the beginning of Act II. The strings played as one, with fine, warm sheen. The critical woodwinds, and especially the oboe and English horn, were wonderfully expressive. Mark maintained tight control between the stage and the pit, carefully balanced with his singers, and conveying a fine sense of the overall arch of each act.

The most powerful voice in the cast was that of dramatic soprano Marjorie Elinor Dix, who sang Isolde. Her solid and even voice never showed signs of strain and always managed to keep above the crest of the waves of sound generated by Wagner's orchestra. While maintaining musical values, she was fully in character on stage, whether furiously raging at the beginning of Act I or swept up in a blind passion as the act ends. In this context, Act III's "Liebestod" was emotionally wrenching and devastating. It was a promising debut in the role, although against a 100-piece orchestra and in a huge house it might have been a different story.

Tenor Thomas Rolf Truhitte was a fine Sigmund in the VOA's Wälkure. Although listed as a "heldentenor" in publicity, that is premature. His vocal heft was noticeably less than Dix's, but he brought a great deal of sensitivity to the role of Tristan. His gently-floated, quiet singing at the beginning of the Act II love duet was superb, and his portrayal of fevered delirium in Act III was deeply moving. A gallery on Truhitte's webpage - at http://thomasrolftruhitte.com/ [inactive 3/05] - has photos from both VOA Wagner productions.

Great swaths of King Marke's role were sorely missed since bass Charles Robert Austin combined a firm and warm sound with the deep pathos of his character's suffering at the seemingly-willful betrayal of his trust and the tragedy of his attempt to right things at the end of Act III.

Mezzo-soprano Mary Ann Stewart's pleasing, dark-tinged voice was unwavering across its range. Her portrayal of Brangäne's conflicts of loyalty -- while deciding to switch from poison to a love potion, for example – and while registering her horror at the ensuing careless and blind passion -- were superb. Her Act II "Watch," sung from offstage, could be heard clearly in the fine acoustics of the Landmark Theater. The role of Kurwenal, Tristan's loyal and tactless companion, was taken by Nmon Ford, who possesses a warm and even-toned baritone voice and imaginative acting skills. This bodes well for his assumption of the role of Don Giovanni at the 2005 Spoleto Festival USA.

The shorter roles -- tenor Daniel Snyder was the Young Sailor, baritone Juan Donyeá Dunn, the Steersman, tenor Michael Dailey, the villainous Melot, and tenor Danny Markam, the Shepherd – and the 16-member chorus were adequate or better.

While we had been pleased with Lillian Groag's stage direction of the Ring opera, setting it in some vague mythic past, her decision to move the action of Tristan und Isolde from the age of Beowulf to that of Wagner's own mid-19th century seemed senseless. Isolde and Bragäine ambled around in dresses with bustles, Tristan and Kurwenal were in military attire, and King Marke looked like Prince Albert. And where are the abstract post-WWII sets of the Wagner grandchildren when you want them? Period displacement aside, however, the blocking and movements of the singers were effective, as was the development of the characters.

Between acts, the constant negative refrain in all conversations with audience members related to the weird unit set designed by Michael Ganio. In Act I, the stage was dominated by an apparent slice across a ship with several rows of oars. We think it ill advised to have rowing oars below the water line... Tristan was supposed to be standing on the stern, and one would think fluid dynamics would imply some narrowness, even on a Mississippi river boat, but no -- it looked like our hero was taking his promenade on the battery of Charleston harbor. For Act II, oars and pieces of hull were removed and some possible tent poles and a small tree (perhaps a sapling from the world ash tree?) arose amidships. And Act III resembled a bums' camp more than a run-down castle.

The costumes designed by Robert Morgan were apt for the updated staging. The wide range lighting effects, dramatic and subtle, designed by Robert Wierzel, were exemplary in every way. An evocation of the aurora borealis fading into a fiery red sunrise underlined the unleashed passions of in Act I, and a suggestion of moonlight filtered through trees played across the lovers in Act II. Lighting design has been a strength of every VOA production I have covered.