Compelling Concert Tristan Torso

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Prelude to Act I, Act II (concert version): Linda Watson, soprano (Isolde); Michelle DeYoung, mezzo soprano (Brangäne); Stefan Vinke, tenor (Tristan); Sean Panikkar, tenor (Melot); John Relyea, bass-baritone (König Marke); Daniel Eifert, baritone (Kurwenal); Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Symphony Center, Chicago, 22.2.2013 (JLZ)

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Prelude to Act I, Act II

To commemorate the bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra devoted a concert to portions of Tristan und Isolde, the well-known Prelude to Act I and the entirety of Act II. Infrequently heard in concert, the second act is well-suited to Symphony Center, and offers the chance to hear details that sometimes blur when the opera is staged and the orchestra is relegated to the pit. The second act’s love duet alone deserves the attention.

Esa-Pekka Salonen approached the first-act prelude with intensity, as evidenced by his control of tempo and dynamics, building the opening incrementally to the initial forte. From the start, the drama was present, with the rich, full sound of the cellos setting the tone. As familiar as this piece may be, this performance had the precision of a studio recording. The fullness of sound never flagged, thanks to Salonen’s precise and clear direction.

Moments after the prelude ended, Salonen began the second act so that the intensity was not lost. The orchestra started brilliantly, with the opening measures clearly articulated, and vibrant woodwind timbres given the clarity heard on recordings, but not always in the opera house. The singers did not begin seated, but entered as they would in a staged production. Watson and DeYoung entered discreetly, just before their vocal lines, across the stage from each other, and sang louder than when blocking places them more closely together. Watson is certainly an experienced Isolde, with the range and flexibility needed. At times the entrances in the upper part of her range seemed somewhat strained, perhaps due to her placement in the hall. Later, when Watson and Stefan Vinke stood next to each other on the side of the stage, there were no such issues with volume and tone quality. Watson was most impressive in her duet with Vinke, in the part of the second scene that begins “O eitler Tagesknecht!” The intensity of her delivery was paired with appropriate tone.

Stefan Vinke gave a laudable performance as Tristan, but his somewhat open sound seemed out of place in the more intimate space of Symphony Center—as if he were singing in a larger hall—and sometimes overbalanced the orchestra. Yet the last part of the second scene was moving, starting with “O ew’ge Nacht,” in which Tristan declares his love for Isolde. While pitch was sometimes a problem, the overall effect was strong.

As Brangäne, Michelle DeYoung was impressive throughout—especially her sensitivity to line and the text’s inflections. This was a Brangäne who cared enough not to let Isolde suffer the death potion, a Brangäne who also warned her about some of those in the court around her. DeYoung’s urgency was as dignified as her musicality. Her exchanges with Watson in the first scene were consistently outstanding, with notable intensity to her final “Habet acht!” just before the closing of the second scene.

In the other roles, Sean Panikkar was particularly effective as Melot, with incisive, precise delivery, and John Relyea’s portrayal of King Mark had just the right weight and inflection—all anchored by Salonen’s contributions.

James L. Zychowicz