Opera Review: The Dallas Opera Brings Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde Into The 21st Century

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde poses more than the usual challenges of opera presentation. The new production by the Dallas Opera, which opened Thursday night at Winspear Opera House, answers all of those challenges, rendering that masterpiece from the 19th century as meaningful as ever in the 21st.

Based on a medieval romance, Tristan und Isolde is essentially a four-hour rumination on the nature of romantic love. Traditional staging of Wagner can be tricky at best: neither quasi-realism nor fantastical backdrops are ever entirely successful, and often seem at odds with the glorious music. In this production, designed by Christian Rath, brilliant computer projections on large, frequently moving panels constantly pulled the viewer through hyper-realistic and boldly abstract landscapes. Projections designer Elaine J. McCarthy and her colleagues manage to engage visually while never intruding on Wagner’s score, while always underlining the complex verbal content. At any given moment, the singers might be floating in space, or facing each other across a silk-covered bed, or standing on a beach surrounded by lapping waves, or deep in a woodland. Bold flashes of red—notably in Isolde’s attire and in a recurring diagonal stripe and a flexible rope—stood out against appropriately dark grays, browns, and blacks. The costumes, designed by Susan Cox of the faculty of University of Dallas, were brilliantly ambivalent and, and thought-provoking: the females were clad in a broadly medieval costume, while the men were largely dressed in quasi-fascist military uniforms.

Musically, opening night brought an impeccable reading of the score. Conductor and music director Graeme Jenkins once again proved an amazing ability to create and maintain impetus across a huge time-span—a knack he applies equally well in a wide variety of styles. As in all of his operas, Wagner here demands principal singers of extraordinary lung-power and stamina, and this cast is consistently up to the task. Tenor Clifton Forbis (chair of the voice department at SMU) and soprano Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet were dramatically and vocally powerful; mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips turned in an often entrancing performance as Brangane. Baritone Jukka Rasilainen and bass Kristinn Sigmundsson were equally notable as Tristan’s companion Kurvenal and King Marke.

Production designer Rath, who also served as stage director, likewise introduced a number of dramatic elements to further enrich this production. The physical interaction of Charbonnet and Phillips as Isolde and Brangane suggested an erotic attachment that strengthens the motivation for Brangane’s well-meaning betrayal of the pair in Act I. The staging likewise suggested a similar possibility—and interesting implications—in the relationship of Tristan and King Marke. And, in Rath’s version of the final scene, wonderfully realized by Forbis and Charbonnet, Isolde—already emotionally unstable in Act I—and Tristan have both clearly succumbed to madness as well as a higher, transcendent wisdom. The result of these elements is, in short, an unforgettable and thrilling operatic experience.


  • Zach

    The correct spelling is Clifton Forbis.

  • scott

    It’s still going to be hard to convince less-than-hard-core opera goers to sit through over 4 hours of what is essentially an opera with no action. The lighting is stunning and the music is entrancing and TDO is to be commended on the project. One flaw, what’s up with the glitter at the end??

  • Lance Scallop

    Overall a definite success. If they can figure out how to get that clunky “curtain” to work – especially so it doesn’t interfere from an already awkwardly-staged end of Act I this thing will certainly be considered a triumph (especially in light of the well-documented financial difficulties even staging Tristan this season).

    The orchestra was absolutely fantastic – and, as usual, the conclusion of the opera was marred by early applause.

    On the whole a great night and thanks to The Dallas Opera. I can’t wait to see the other three performances!

  • Pony

    Since he was Tristan, the title role, you might want to get his name right: Clifton Forbis. I heard his Tristan in Paris and it was tremendous!! The Bastille erupted for him and glad to hear he is still bringin’ it!!!

  • Hania

    Great performance after all financial rocky road on the beginning the season. 4 hours seating on not so comfortable seats passed by un noticeably. Also wondered what’s up with glitter at the end ?

  • Kelly

    Just FYI, Susan Cox (the costumer designer) is on the faculty at UD (University of Dallas) not UTD.

  • Be serious

    Seriously? The only way they are going to get better is if they get real critiques. This was the worst opera, maybe the worst performance of any kind, I have every seen. I was one of the very few who stayed for the end, out of respect for Dallas, and at by the end there were so many stage direction mistakes I was laughing out loud. Terrible… and a shame for Dallas. This reviewer needs to compare our opera to the world’s stage. It’s the only way we will compete.