Stellar orchestral playing, uneven vocalism in CSO’s mixed “Tristan”

Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 3:20 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

“Tristram and Iseult” by Noël Laura Nisbet (1887-1956)

If there were more moments like John Relyea’s sonorous, deeply expressive and beautifully sung account of King Marke’s lament, Thursday night’s Tristan und Isolde concert would have been counted among the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s most memorable Wagner evenings.

Yet, even with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s spacious, uncommonly detailed direction, and rich-textured, eloquent playing from the orchestra, this event, marking Wagner’s bicentennial year, proved a decidedly mixed bag due to an uneven lineup of singers.

Hemorrhagic chunks of Wagner operas in abridged concert form are inherently problematic, iron breastplates and winged helmets swapped for even more ludicrous evening formalwear. Still, great singer-actors can make the incongruity instantly irrelevant and allow one to luxuriate in Wagner’s lush, overlapping waves of vocal and symphonic splendor.

Thursday’s Tristan program offered the Prelude to Act 1 and the complete Act 2 of Wagner’s epic love story, making a tidy, unbroken 90-minute evening, user-friendly Wagner for those who can’t quite handle the five-and-one-half hours of the Lyric Opera’s current, excellent Meistersinger across the Loop.

Even competing with noisy candy wrappers and coughing, Salonen cast a rapt and immediate spell with the Prelude, the opening notes hovering on the edge of audibility, and the Finnish conductor unfolding Wagner’s long lyrical paragraphs with a natural flow, drawing refined, nuanced phrasing from the orchestra.

In fact, the CSO’s resplendent playing and rich, glowing textures were the most consistent element of the evening. One doesn’t think of Salonen as an opera conductor, but he showed real skill in this challenging music, only occasionally overwhelming his singers, and consistently drawing out the impassioned score with apt fervor and transparency.

If only he had a better-matched pair of doomed lovers. Linda Watson has had an admirable career as a Wagner soprano, singing Kundry at Bayreuth in 1998. The veteran soprano sang in idiomatic style but these concerts appear to be catching the singer past her shelf life for this role. Ultimately, Watson proved a serviceable Isolde rather than an impressive one, her tone sounding dry and constricted in both color and expressive range, lacking the requisite gleam and volume for this assignment, even in an abridged concert format.

It was surprising to read that Stefan Vinke has sung such roles as Tristan and Siegfried throughout Europe. Maybe in intimate continental houses, his tenor sounds more Helden, but Vinke too sounded at least one size too small for his role. He sang Tristan with intelligence and illuminated the text impressively, but the unvaried timbre and generalized expression made for some anodyne Wagner vocalism. The German tenor blended well with Watson in the Liebesnacht duet and brought more ardency to the latter dramatic moments of the scene but this was hardly Wagner singing to have one riveted.

The finest vocal moments of the evening came from two smaller roles. Michelle DeYoung sang the role of Brangaene at Lyric Opera 13 years ago, but sounded nearly as terrific Thursday night, bringing crisp diction, as well as a vivid characterization and energetic intensity to the role of Isolde’s maid that was largely missing from the two principals. Artful stage management had the mezzo-soprano sing Brangaene’s Watch from a corner of the front balcony, and even with a fitfully wobbly vibrato, what a pleasure to hear this kind of committed Wagner singing.

Yet it was John Relyea’s show, the singer making a quietly sensational CSO subscription debut. The American bass-baritone brought an easy command, dark warm tone, and world-weary sadness to the rejected royal suitor , conveying all the pain and wounded anger of Marke without ever sacrificing an essential nobility of spirit.

In smaller roles, Sean Panikkar as Melot and Daniel Eifert as Kurwenal rounded out the cast.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

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One Response to “Stellar orchestral playing, uneven vocalism in CSO’s mixed “Tristan””

  1. Posted Feb 23, 2013 at 1:57 am by Peter Borich

    Excellent, well-done performance. Memorable CSO concert.

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