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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 4, No. 1 September 1998

A Tristan for the Ages
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Seattle Opera, Seattle, Washington
by Joseph So

BenHeppner.jpg (12124 bytes)Even for the most inveterate Wagnerite, a perfect Tristan und Isolde happens only once in a lifetime. Seattle Opera's new production arguably approachd perfection. Director Francesca Zambello, scenery and costume designer Alison Chitty, and conductor Armin Jordan teamed up to produce a Tristan that sets the standard for the new millennium.

Key to the opera's success was Canadian tenor Ben Heppner and British soprano Jane Eaglen as the star-crossed lovers, both essaying their title roles for the first time in a fully staged production. On opening night (August 1) and in subsequent performances (August 7 and 10), they drew vociferous standing ovations from the audience and strong praise from the world press.

Jane Eaglen sang Isolde. Her voice was rich, full, brilliant, and indefatigable, with every high C firmly in place. Big voices like Eaglen's often don't record well in a studio environment, but in the theatre her voice had space to expand and resonate to exhilarating effect. Definitely a heavyweight dramatic soprano in every sense of the word, Eaglen in Seattle proved that when attractively costumed and intelligently directed, a woman of her size can act a convincing Isolde.

In recent interviews Ben Heppner expressed some trepidation regarding the vocal demands of singing Tristan. Though obviously pacing himself in Act 1, he came into his own by the Act 2 Love Duet. His voice rang out thrillingly in the third act, though several minutes were cut from the Mad Scene. Heppner's portrayal was remarkable for its vocal beauty and searing dramatic intensity. Vocally, his Tristan had no baritone underpinnings; the mad scene was sung, not barked. Heppner's acting in Act 3 was a revelation, with a heartfelt, almost religious fervour.

The set design was not to everyone's taste. Angular, hard-edged, with plenty of steel and chrome, it harkened back to the aesthetically cold Kupfer Ring, although the lighting gave it warmth. Act 1 took place in a Titanic-type ocean liner. Isolde's quarters below deck resembled the interior of a bank vault. Occasionally, the bottom panels of the ship dropped down to reveal buff boys from the local gym going through sailing motions -- rowing, pulling sails, and striking beefcake poses. Act 2 opened in a barren birch forest with falling snow, more evocative of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin than the summer night Wagner intended.

Zambello's staging of the Love Duet departed from other famous productions, such as Ponelle's for Bayreuth where the lovers nestled on the ground under an enormous tree. In Seattle, Zambello placed the singers on a modern settee -- obviously the most comfortable position for such a hefty couple. Another interesting twist was Kurwenal's unexpected suicide in Act 3. Despite these eccentricities, the production as a whole worked beautifully. All the principals were strong. American mezzo Michelle DeYoung made an endearing youthful Brangaene, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley was a strong Kurwenal. The physical affection between Kurwenal and Tristan was a pleasant change from productions in which the two singers are placed far apart. As King Marke, Britain's Peter Rose revealed a beautiful, smooth bass. Armin Jordan's conducting was marvellous, coaxing wave upon wave of sound from the orchestra.

This Tristan und Isolde is scheduled for the Chicago Lyric Opera in 18 months, with some of the same singers. The Ben and Jane Show will also arrive at the Metropolitan Opera in the autumn of 1999. Jane Eaglen stars in the Chicago Lyric Opera's Gioconda in October. Ben Heppner will sing in Britten's War Requiem with the Toronto Symphony on February 25 & 27, 1999.

Desert Songs : A Week at the Santa Fe Opera
by Joseph So

For the past 41 summers, the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico has offered audiences a unique blend of world class opera in beautiful natural surroundings. Last year the house was redesigned,to protect audiences from the unpredictable desert weather. The visually stunning curve of the opera house's new two-piece roof is credited with helping the house's admittedly excellent acoustics. The roof blocks the view of the starry night skies, but the theatre's sides and the back stage remain open, framing the spectacular New Mexico sunset. The new house's increased capacity is 2,126, plus 150 in standing room. An "electronic libretto" system, much like the Metropolitan Opera's, will be installed next year at a cost of $2 million.

Unfortunately, this summer's musical offerings were not equal to the splendid new facilities. Puccini's Madama Butterfly (seen Aug. 3) suffered from a middle-of-the-road production. Maltese soprano Miriam Gauci sang Butterfly with a small voice, sans high D at the entrance, making little impact. But she looked good and acted well. Martin Thompson (Pinkerton) sounded pushed at the top. Peter Coleman-Wright made a small-scale Consul. John Crosby conducted clinically, with little passion. Last year's Glimmerglass Madama Butterfly was better.

British director Jonathan Miller feels that Mozart's original Egyptian setting of The Magic Flute (Aug. 4) is too contrived. His solution is to set the action in a hotel lobby in 1920's Geneva, with the men (except the bellhop Papageno) wearing tuxedos, and the women (except the chambermaid Papagena) wear glittering evening dresses. Goodbye to Mozart's "contrived" dragon, birdcage, and trial by fire and water! Alas, Miller's alternative is equally contrived, leaving the audience befuddled.

Top vocal honours went to Raymond Very (Tamino), who looked handsome and sang with gorgeous tone and a genuine Mozartian line. Heidi Grant Murphy made a well-sung but bland Pamina. Thomas Barrett (Papageno) also sang well, but mercilessly overacted. Jami Rogers (Queen) screamed her high notes and displayed substandard coloratura. Her squeaky speaking voice turned the menacing Queen of the Night into a Disney cartoon. Stephen Richardson lacked the solid low notes to make a convincing Sarastro. The excellent Second Lady (Josepha Gayer) and Third Lady (Anne-Marie Owens) were sabotaged by a shrill First Lady (Sheri Greenawald).

Ingvar Lidholm's A Dream Play (August 5) tells the story of the god Indra's daughter, who comes to earth to examine the human condition and the reason for man's unhappiness. Production values were high and there was plenty of stagecraft - a tree shed and regained its leaves, and a castle went up in flames. The set was made up of panels of Magritte-inspired billowing clouds. The stellar cast gave strong performances, particularly Hakan Hagegard (Officer) and Sylvia McNair (Daughter). Unfortunately, an opera which resembles several Ingmar Bergmann movies rolled into one is not exactly calculated to please the American public. The trickle of people leaving early turned into a mass exodus near the end. Those who remained were no closer to understanding what the opera meant. The pleasant but not tuneful score had moments of appropriately nightmarish music.

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan : The Mikado
Festival Canada
National Arts Center, Ottawa
by Pierre Bellemare

Brian Macdonald's production of The Mikado (seen July 21) is far from new but it still sparkles, a near-perfect revival of the award-winning 1982 Stratford production. A perfect production of The Mikado requires performers equally fine as singers and as actors. This production offers the next best thing, top-notch comic actors who can do some singing and top-notch singers who can do some acting. Among the latter, young John Tessier (Nanki-Poo) is certainly a name to remember, possessor of a clear, fresh, powerful, impressively agile tenor voice, supported by a flawless technique. John Avey (Mikado) also has a remarkable voice - booming, virile, and distinctly coloured, though he had some enunciation problems. Glynnis Ranney came the closest to achieving a perfect balance between acting and singing, as Yum-Yum, ingenue extraordinaire and imperious empress in the making.

As Chief Executioner, newcomer Avery Saltzman (Ko-Ko) had an irresistible way of frolicking through the "Little List" aria with the air of someone telling a dirty joke. Richard McMillan (Pooh-Bah), the only survivor from the original cast, may not have the greatest voice in the world (by classical standards), but what a comedian - and a dancer to boot! He captured the essence of this marvelous role with a unique blend of deadpan cynicism and athletic buffoonery. The chorus was a wonder both to hear and to see, fully up to director Brian Macdonald's choreographical conception of the work.

(c) La Scena Musicale