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Seattle Opera’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ presented masterfully as an opera of the mind

Asher Fisch
Seattle Times

By Bernard Jacobson

Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," which opened Seattle Opera's 2010-11 season on Saturday, is justly regarded as the most influential work in the history of music since the mid-19th century. Whether that redounds entirely to its credit is a fair question. But there could hardly be any doubt of the overwhelming vocal and orchestral glory this performance achieved under Asher Fisch's masterful baton.

The orchestral sound, crucial in any Wagner opera, was magnificently full, rich and delicately nuanced, from soaring strings, plangent woodwinds and threatening drums and heavy brass to offstage hunting horns and a solo on a Holztrompete, or wooden trumpet, borrowed for the occasion. With this sumptuous support, every voice projected a quality hard to match in any operatic cast in the world.

As Isolde, Swedish soprano Annalena Persson, making her U.S. debut, unfurled a securely centered tone that could dominate the ensemble with apparent ease. There is an edge to her sound, but an edge that thrills rather than disturbs. And for once we could watch a singer whose slim, tall figure and beauty made a truly credible Isolde. Her worthy partner as Tristan was Clifton Forbis, a tenor with a warm baritonal tinge to his voice, and equally adept in portraying the intermingled torment and ecstasy of his role.

Brangäne and Kurwenal were those familiar company favorites, Margaret Jane Wray and Greer Grimsley. The smaller roles of Sailor, Shepherd and Steersman were well-taken, and Danish bass Stephen Milling, as King Marke, revealed perhaps the richest voice of all.

In terms of production, Peter Kazaras, the unfailingly creative director, presented "Tristan und Isolde" as an opera of the mind. Citing inspiration drawn from Ambrose Bierce's short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," he showed us a extratemporal drama taking place not in the physical world but in the characters' imaginations, perhaps in that supposed instant of insight that precedes death.

This notion explains the deliberate non-realism of Robert Israel's spare sets and simple costumes, enhanced by Duane Schuler's subtle lighting. It was exemplified in the disjunction between the urgency of the action and the almost catatonic leisure with which it was played. "Tristan" is, after all, a tract for our times, being the story of two people whose lives are derailed by a drug. The only weaknesses were such frankly silly touches as the little model held up to symbolize the approach of Isolde's ship. And it was by no means a weakness, but rather an unblinking realization of the egotism Wagner shared with his characters, that no attempt was made to moderate the horror of seeing Tristan and Isolde calmly discussing their future plans not 5 feet away from the stricken figure of King Marke, whose life their betrayal has just destroyed.