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Friday, February 22, 2013

Opera Review: Tristan: The Hot Parts Version

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra presents Act II of Wagner's opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen 
Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo by Clive Barda ©
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a long tradition of presenting Wagner operas, from its 1891 stint accompanying the touring Metropolitan Opera (in an Italian-language performance of Lohengrin) to a 1995 concert performance of Die Meistersinger  (which became a Grammy-winning 1997 recording) with the late Sir Georg Solti.

On Thursday night, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen offered his own spin on this tradition with a 90-minute, intermission-less concert that paired the Prelude from Act I of Tristan with the complete second act of that opera. Performing  the work in this fashion allowed the audience to hear this familiar music in a new way and focus on the grand love duet that dominates the second act. More importantly, Mr. Salonen, an award-winning composer himself showed the connection between the famous Tristan chord and the tragic events that end the opera's second act.

Mr. Salonen took an idiosyncratic approach to the Act I Prelude, He waited for absolute silence in Orchestra Hall before launching into the three-note figure that forms this opera's orchestral signature. The conductor sped up as the swell sound increased, leading the heaving central climax at a passionate clip. Throughout, there was a perfect, limpid clarity of strings, wind and horns, right down to the two cello plucks that lead into Act I.

Here, they didn't. The downward-slashing, dissonant chord that start Act II followed without pause, a jarring effect. Offstage hunting horns engaged in call-and-response with the solo bass clarinet. The orchestra charged into the music depicting the eager Isolde waiting for her ill-fated tryst with Tristan to begin.

Three minutes later, the singers entered. Although playing queen and handmaiden, Linda Watson and Michelle DeYoung looked sisterly in their black concert wear and blond tresses. Ms. Watson used her potent soprano to maximum effect as Isolde, putting a dynamite charge into her opening lines. She was answered by Ms. DeYoung, their act opening argument expertly supported by Mr. Salonen.

Matters became more difficult with the bustling arrival of Tristan, played here by German tenor Stefan Vinke. Mr. Vinke has a strong, ringing voice with enough power and emotion for Tristan. He strained for some notes, turning red with effort as he surged over the thundering orchestra. He improved in the softer passages, particularly a smooth, melting "O sink hernieder" and the portion of the long duet where Tristan sings the melody that Wagner would later echo in the Act III Liebestod.

Halfway through their rendezvous, Ms. DeYoung appeared in the lower balcony of the auditorium, which became a watch-tower for Brangäne's uttered warnings. Hearing her this close, one was impressed by the rich, mellifluous flood of tone she brought to these mysterious lines, each word rich with meaning and portent.

As the duet reached its climax, the lovers' dream-world was rudely shattered by Mr. Salonen and the  brass. This signalled the arrival of  Kurwenal (Daniel Eifert, a leading member of the CSO chorus) Melot (the impressive young tenor Sean Pannikar) and King Marke, played by the leading bass John Relyea. Mr. Relyea sang the final impressive performance of the evening, putting heartbreak and regret into his long address to Tristan. The only real tragedy here was that the opera remained incomplete.

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