Tristan Und Isolde Review – Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Presentation is Spectacular

On yet another frigid evening in Chicago, my husband and I headed to the Civic Opera House to see the Lyric Opera of Chicago presentation of the Los Angeles Opera production of Richard Wagner’s, Tristan und Isolde, which is playing on February 8 (1:00 pm matinee) and continuing on February 12, 16, 20, 24, and 28 at 6:00 pm.  We chose to arrive at 5:00 p.m. to hear the pre-opera lecture by Lyric Dramaturg, Roger Pines.  

Tristan (Clifton Forbis) and Isolde (Deborah Voigt)

Before attending the opera itself, I explored the Lyric website ( and found and printed an in depth article about Tristan und Isolde by Jack Zimmerman of Lyric Opera of Chicago, and then listened to several interviews.  There was a round table discussion in which Deborah Voigt and Clifton Forbis spoke about taking on their demanding roles.  In an interview, Petra Lang explained her interpretation of her role as Brangane and said she had performed the role one hundred times and was pleased to be reunited with Deborah Voigt with whom she performed previously.  The interview with David Hockney, set and costume designer, mentioned his wish to have the audience “hear the music with their eyes”.

Tristan und Isolde was first performed at the Hof-und Nationaltheater, Munich, on June 10, 1865.  The American premiere was at the Metropolitan Opera House on December 1, 1886, where it was an outstanding success.  Lyric Opera of Chicago’s premiere was November 1, 1958 and it was followed by performances in 1979, 1982 and 1999.  The sets and costumes originally designed for the 1987 Los Angeles Opera performance of Tristan und Isolde, were revived in 1997 and again last year, given a face-lift and are now premiering in Chicago's performance.

Act 1

It is said that, “In its sheer ecstasy, this opera’s breathtaking love duet remains incomparable in the entire operatic repetoire”.  The story is based on a Celtic romance myth that was set down by Thomas of Britain during the twelfth century and later adopted by Gottfried van Strassburg in 1220.  Wagner wrote his own lyrics and created a new harmonic vocabulary that redirected the course of music…chromatic suspension and unresolved chord progression that was a major departure from earlier approaches and lead the way to Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system of composition. Incorporated into Tristan’s love music, prelude to Act III, are two of five verses by poetess Mathilde Wesendonk, (wife of a silk merchant who assisted Wagner during a financial crisis) who was the inspiration for this opera.

Act 1

I learned that in the story of Tristan und Isolde, Knight Tristan (tenor Clifton Forbis) has killed the fiancé of the Irish princess, Isolde (soprano Deborah Voigt) in a duel.  He is then assigned to escort Isolde from Ireland to Cornwall, where she is to marry his aged uncle, King Marke (bass Stephen Milling, debut).  His friend and servant, Kurwenal, accompany the knight (baritone Jason Stearns, debut, Jan 24-Feb 8/bass-baritone Greer Grimsely, debut, Feb 12-28).  On the voyage, Isolde tells her maid Brangane (mezzo-soprano Petra Lang, debut) to prepare a death potion for herself and Tristan, but Brangane substitutes a love potion instead.  Later, Tristan and Isolde are discovered together by Marke, and in an ensuing fight, Tristan is wounded. Isolde is brought to Tristan to try to heal him, but he dies as she arrives.  The final scene is dramatically powerful and spiritually transforming.
I was thrilled as the curtain opened - nothing I had seen or read had the impact of really seeing the David Hockney sets and costumes. As the music began, we heard the passionate sound of the famous “Tristan chord”.  As the first act progressed, my eyes were riveted to the colors and patterns, especially in the design features created by the movement of the costumes against the sets.  The music and singing were magnificent and, being transfixed, the ending of the first act came more quickly than expected.

Act 2

Because the performance begins early and runs almost five hours, there are box dinners available for purchase.  One can also bring in dinners.  Looking around the lobby, I observed young and old, people who were dressed up and those who were casually dressed, people with box dinners and many with “brown bags”, sitting on the steps, standing at tables, milling around and just having a lovely time.

When the second act began, the stage was so visually exquisite that I actually caught my breath.  The act continues with deep discussion of day and night, light and dark and how love is preserved.  Wagner’s reading of Schopenhauer's philosophy, which is a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition, is incorporated into this act.  At the end of the act, I was surprised to find myself near tears as King Marke, Stephen Milling, sings some of the best, and to me, the most moving Bass music of Wagner.

Act 2

In the third act, the set was more stark but nevertheless engaging and compelling.  Tristan who was, it turns out, mortally wounded is recovering in the home of his boyhood and waiting for Isolde to heal him.  He is waiting and waiting.  His singing is superb.  When Isolde does appear, at last, the opera ends as she essentially moves into “heaven”.  The lighting is almost as powerful as the music.  The end was so beautiful and moving that the time seem to have flown and we left, moved and changed,  having entered another realm (away from the snow!)  There was a well-deserved standing ovation for Deborah Voigt.

Act 3

We spoke for a few minutes with our seat neighbors, Evelyn and Daryl who are both teachers who love opera.  Evelyn had seen the previous production at Lyric but thought that the David Hockney sets made this presentation outstanding.  Daryl who had not seen a Wagner opera previously, like this better than expected, in fact, he liked a lot.  You will, too!

The conductor is Sir Andrew Davis, with stage direction by Jose Maria Condemi and sets and costumes designed by David Hockney.  Lighting designer is Duane Schuler.

This production of Tristan und Isolde was originally created for Los Angeles Opera.  The Lyric Opera presentation is generously made possible by Mrs. A. Watson Armour, Julie and Roger Baskes, an Anonymous Donor, and Howard A. Stotler.

In German with projected English translations.

Running Time: 4 hours 50 minutes

Further information about and tickets for this amazing production are available at: or by calling 312.332.2244, ext.5600.

Photos: Dan Rest, Lyric Opera of Chicago

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