dallas opera’s Tristan und Isolde (seen on February 16) may have outdone even last season’s Boris Godunov as the company’s most imposing performance in the dozen years I’ve been reviewing its productions. In our dreams, we could imagine a finer cast, but this was about as good as you’ll get in today’s real world, and the music director Graeme Jenkins got playing of breathtaking eloquence from the company’s very part-time orchestra.
The opera almost didn’t reach the Dallas stage at all. Originally, the company had planned to bring in the large—and expensive—Francesca Zambello production from Seattle Opera, with Zambello’s assistant, Christian Räth, directing. Facing multimillion-dollar deficits, though, the company cancelled the Katya Kabanova originally planned for the autumn season, and almost canned Tristan. Then it was announced that Tristan would be presented in concert performances. Then, thanks to a special board fundraising drive, the video designer Elaine McCarthy, who created the projections for the 2010 premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, was hired to work with Räth in devising something similar, if less complex, for Tristan. The results proved quite striking: telling images of water and clouds, masts and sails, moonlit trees and, finally, a starlit beach, projected on shifting trapezoidal scrims. Costumes, by Susan Cox, were of deliberately indeterminate period, maybe somewhere between 1850 and 1920: mostly long, buttoned-front dresses for the women, military uniforms for the men. Deft lighting was by Alan Burrett.
At first, Clifton Forbis sounded worryingly cautious as Tristan. But a good deal of the part lies low and soft, apt to his meaty, baritonal timbre, and at climaxes he summoned great clarion tones to fill the winspear opera house. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet was every inch the passionate Irish princess, at first a bundle of fury, then wholly possessed by the love potion. Her soprano smouldered hotly below, blazed thrillingly on high. Jukka Rasilainen played Kurwenal not as the usual relatively noble figure, but as a rather rough-hewn character—Leporello minus the jokes. I’m not sure I buy the concept, but he sang stirringly, with a pleasant bit of brass in the tone. Mary Phillips’s Brangaene was less matronly than usual, but she, too, was a singer of great vocal and emotional intensity. Kristinn Sigmundsson was a stern King Marke, a huge man with a huge and thrilling bass. Stephen Gadd was aptly chilling, with yet another strong voice, as Melot. A little uncertain in the Sailor’s tricky opening song, Aaron Blake sang beautifully as the third-act Shepherd.
As staged by Räth, the final scene had hardly any physical interaction between the dramatis personae, and I didn’t get the significance of the dark confetti that floated down on the bodies that had dropped to the floor. Tristan expired in a wrecked fragment of a small boat, a bitterly ironic echo of the royal ship on which we first met him. Perhaps Räth was suggesting that everything was happening in Tristan’s dying brain cells. Maybe the point was that everything that goes wrong in the story does so because people haven’t communicated. The ambiguity wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.Jenkins eloquently sustained and subtly massaged the music’s tensions and interplays over vast stretches of time. Offstage horns had some tuning issues, but in general the orchestra gave an incandescent performance. The chorus, prepared by Alexander Rom, did its work effectively.