New production of “Tristan” opens Saturday at McCaw

Annalena Persson (Isolde) and Margaret Jane Wray (Brangäne). Rozarii Lynch Photo

By R.M. Campbell

Wagner’s monumental “Tristan und Isolde”  is not a stranger to Seattle Opera: it has never been approached lightly. The opera is too important, too central to the Wagner canon, too demanding to be treated with anything less than awe and respect. The last time the company mounted the opera, in 1998, it had an all-star cast (Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner singing the roles for the first time together ) and a production team, headed by stage director Francesca Zambello. The set, designed by Alison Chitty, was as massive as the opera itself. Magnificent really, especially the first and second acts.

Unfortunately, the set had a short life. Normally when an opera returns to the repertory after its inaugural outing, the old set is revived, unless, of course, it was a disaster like the “Aida.” That was not the case with this “Tristan.” It was scratched because it was too expensive to move about the stage. So, Robert Israel, with a long association at the opera company who designed its “Parsifal,” which opened McCaw Hall in 2003, was called upon, not only to do the decor but also the costumes. By the looks of what he designed it would appear he was given a very small budget — a pity because the 1998 “Tristan” was so visually compelling.

This “Tristan” is not compelling in that sense. Israel and stage director Peter Kazaras came up with a concept production, allied with some high technology equipment newly purchased, that is more confusing than enlightening. There are slabs of rock, a thin red rope that stretches across the stage in every scene, large pale colored pieces of fabric that hang here and there, isolated bits of furniture and so on. None of it makes any immediate sense. The inspiration for the concept, according to the program, comes from Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story, “An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in which a Confederate gentleman-farmer is tricked into an act of sabotage by a Union soldier for which he pays with his life. It is an exploration of time, not real time but inner time.

If ever a production needed some explanation, this “Tristan” is it. But there is none except to go online and read the story and hear Kazaras talk about the ideas expressed by Bierce, but even that is not especially enlightening. What needs to be said, to be explained should be in the program, not located in some other venue which will be searched by only a fragment of the audience.

What is remarkable is that is that as irritating as the concept is, or perhaps confusion over its meaning, it does not intrude on all the other aspects of the production– musical and dramatic — which are extraordinary. The driving forces are the conducting of Asher Fisch — how well the orchestra played — and Kazaras, who is given more and more responsibility at the company.

The Israeli-born conductor is well-known in Seattle, both at the opera and the Seattle Symphony. He never disappoints in elucidating the music. His palette seems immense, his range of dynamic variation equally large. He has full command of the line, which never seems to end, and produces tremendous beauty of tone. He gets the best of this orchestra. But why was the mysterious and haunting English horn solo that opens the third act — so superbly played by Stefan Farkas — so buried in the pit? The sound had no presence in the house. What a miscalculation. The French horns, led by Jeff Fair, that play an important role in the opera, were in excellent shape.

Since his debut in “Norma” a few years ago, Kazaras has grown considerably. “Tristan” is long but one is never aware of its length with Kazaras. He keeps the action moving surely and without any silly gestures and useless movement. He listen to the music the way some directors seem not to and devises his action to suit whatever the opera at hand. He has a vivid imagination that he puts to good use. Only occasionally does it lead him astray. Kazaras is not afraid to let the music have its say.

The combination of Kazaras and Fisch shaping the whole of the opera gave the production both the strength and suppleness on which the singers could do good work, which they did. Clifton Forbis was Tristan. He is a good Tristan, among the best on the international stage today. His voice is warm and yet strong, able to sustain the long passages Wagner wrote for the character. Annalena Persson made her American operatic debut as Isolde. With her blonde hair and tall figure, she is both imperious and sympathetic. Her voice is powerful, able to do all that Wagner asks. If she has any weakness, it is probably her lyrical sensibility, but that is a minor one. A Brunnhilde perhaps in the future? Margaret Jane Wray sang Brangane with dramatic emphasis and keen focus. Greer Grimsley’s Kurwenal was good, a faithful soldier and friend, but it was Stephen Milling as King Marke who provided both gravitas and depth of emotion. Jason Collins did the most with Melot as did Barry Johnson with the Steerman.

I liked Israel’s costumes and the lighting design of Duane Schuler, who now lives in Seattle. The latter had flair and was always apropos to the action. Jonathan Dean’s subtitles are, of course, apt and eloquent.

Performance runs for three weeks, until August 21.

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2 thoughts on “New production of “Tristan” opens Saturday at McCaw

  1. I am certainly in agreement with your review. The singing was much better than the staging, which was awfully bland. I was hard pressed to get a sense that the “action” in the first act took place on board a ship. You are so correct about the English Horn solo; it seemed like it was played across the street. I like Wagner’s music but I must confess I got sleepy during the third act. After two long acts, I wish Wagner had given the audience a break and shortened things up a bit.

  2. I saw “Tristan” last night and appreciated your review’s focus on the cheap and dreadful staging. I too remember Francesca Zambello’s brilliant production, which worked beautifully with what someone has called “seven hundred pounds of smoldering passion” in the lead roles. I think how great that same setting and direction would been with this year’s strong cast. Instead, we got something akin to one of those old Hollywood “let’s put on a show” musicals, staged in front of a sheet hung from a clothesline. And you were much to kind to Peter Kazaras’ stage direction, which put Tristan’s stabbing behind the sheet and had Greer Grimsley’s Kurwenal standing quietly and then disappearing behind a couch in the only bits of action in Wagner’s four-hour opera. Obviously, Seattle Opera is feeling the impact of the Great Recession and is cutting costs, but this production as a harbinger of things to come is extremely worrisome.

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