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June 7, 2011 6:13 pm

Tristan und Isolde, Opéra de Lyon, France

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Open any of Wagner’s music drama scores and you find just as many hushed piani as blaring fortes. Yet the experience so often in today’s opera houses fails to reflect shaded nuance as singers, and orchestras too, concentrate on blistering volume. This is partly because houses are now bigger but also because audiences have forgotten how to listen, preferring to acclaim decibels instead.

Lyons’ new Tristan is a privileged opportunity to return to loftier musical principles, a display of armchair Wagner in a human-size house where the audience finds itself engrossed in the drama quite as much as the fated lovers in their metaphysical yearnings.

The pit would be too tight a fit for Tristan’s full orchestra so Kirill Petrenko conducts slightly reduced forces, an approach sanctioned by Wagner himself for smaller theatres. The result is a compelling exercise in chamber music that also musters explosive power at dramatic climaxes. Like other Russians tackling Wagner, Petrenko sometimes coaxes excessively Slav vibrato from the strings, but it is a price worth
paying for a reading of such razor-sharp precision.

Soaring above the perfect balance Petrenko engineers between stage and pit, Ann Petersen’s first Isolde is youthful and fresh but every bit the spurned princess. There is no edge to her voice, no shrieking for effect, simply gorgeous singing throughout. A revelation. Clifton Forbis, a globe-trotting Tristan, flashes electrifying muscular power but still floats captivating sotto voce effects. His third act agony is a triumph of rage and frustration. Stella Grigorian lacks the heft to sustain Brangaene’s cantilevered line, but Christof Fischesser’s superb Mark cradles his monologue like a polished lieder singer.

For a theatrical group that normally pulls all the stops out, Alex Ollé and the Fura dels Baus deliver a strangely muted staging. The acting is sharply observed, Alfons Flores’s lunar sphere provides a viable, symbolic framework but Franc Aleu’s video work, one of their main calling cards, is self-effacing. It matters little: Tristan stands or falls on its musical thrust and this neutral backdrop serves as a foil for a truly gripping musical experience. 

 

Opera-Lyon

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