- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2005

‘Tristan und Isolde’The Virginia Opera

George Mason University Center for the Arts

Sunday at 2

SYNOPSIS — In ancient times, the dashing British knight Tristan is sent from Cornwall to Ireland by his uncle, the British King Marke. His mission: to bring back by ship the fiery young Isolde, who is slated to become the old king’s bride. The sullen Isolde is, unsurprisingly, in no mood to cooperate, as Tristan has already whacked her fiance. In revenge, she plots to poison both Tristan and herself. A love potion is accidentally substituted for the vile brew by a well-meaning servant. Tristan and Isolde fall in love, creating real problems for our upright knight. Honor requires forbearance, but hormones dictate the climax and denouement.

HISTORY — In “Tristan,” which opened after many delays in Munich in 1865, Richard Wagner brought his new concept of opera as sung high drama into full flower. Audiences at the premiere were scandalized by “Tristan’s” overt sexuality, but it remains one of his most frequently performed works.

STARS — The dramatically improving Virginia Opera’s budget doesn’t permit the hiring of marquee stars, but its singers generally prove to be top-notch up-and-comers or seasoned veterans not quite as famous as Placido Domingo. In this production, Tristan is sung by tenor Thomas Rolf Truhitte, Isolde by glam soprano Marjorie Elinor Dix, and King Marke by bass-baritone Charles Robert Austin. Very few singers can tackle the complex vocal demands of Wagner’s work. Look for huge, athletic voices that can soar over Wagner’s huge orchestral forces, all without the aid of microphones.

WHAT’S ITS APPEAL? — Wagner has been a familiar target of mockery courtesy of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Still, his massive orchestral accompaniments and radical, almost 20th-century musical ideas shattered the complacent lushness of mid-Romanticism, pointing the way toward Bruckner, Mahler and the kind of chromatic, dissonant music we hear in the heroic film scores of Erich Korngold, Miklos Rozsa and John Williams. Wagner tends to be performed by singers who seem a bit old for the composer’s often-youthful roles, but newer vocal training techniques adopted by appealing younger singers have begun to retire a chunkier generation of heroes and heroines. Fair warning: Wagner’s operas are long.

T.L. Ponick

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