PostHeaderIcon “Tristan and Isolde” Twice

I spent seven hours in two darkened movie theaters two weekends ago gorging on a full plate of opera.  Yet, I emerged from this musical marathon not spent but energized by two fascinating takes on one of opera’s supreme works, Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. There was the Metropolitan Opera’s MetLive telecast and  a leaner retelling of the same tale, “The Love Potion”, by composer Frank Martin, presented by Chicago Opera Theater.

Nina Stemme & Stuart Skelton

Nina Stemme & Stuart Skelton

The Met’s production was star-studded from top to bottom. Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton were in the title roles. Ms. Stemme followed her gripping portrayal in Strauss’ “Elektra” earlier this year with an equally outstanding vocal and emotional performance. In the pit was Sir Simon Rattle drawing an urgent performance from the Met Opera Orchestra while keeping the music in step with the action onstage.

This new production featured a stunning set design by Boris Kudlicka which located all of the three acts’ action on Tristan’s warship which was lit in semi-darkness, unlike any stagings I have seen for this work. It proved an audacious  and highly effective conception.

Notice must also be paid to the fine singing in the supporting roles by Ekaterina Gubanova as Isolde’s companion, Brangane, and Evgeny Nikitin as Tristan’s aide, Kurwenal.

Two Met Live productions later this season will feature a pair of my favorite sopranos: Kristine Opalais in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” and Anna Netrebko in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” Neither should be missed. You can secure Met Live tickets in advance at

On Sunday, I ventured to the Music Box Theatre to hear COT stage the Tristan & Isolde legend. The Music Box, better known for its sing-along “Sound of Music,” was venturing into unchartered waters as was COT. How could 12 singers convey the richness of the prior day’s opera on a tiny stage and in only 2 hours?

Triston & Isolde - Music Box

Tristan & Isolde at Music Box

Very imaginatively, actually, though with significant variations. This was not grand opera but what composer Martin called “a secular oratorio.” Love Potion  was sung in recitative fashion by a cast of highly resourceful ensemble singers/actors. Plus the story was truncated, based simply on three chapters of the novel “Roman de Tristan et Iseult” by Joseph Bedier.

Wagner purists will object loudly to King Mark’s order that the lovers remain apart and pure. How could they while under the potion’s spell? There’s also a second Isolde whom Tristan marries, Isolde of the White Hands. It is her jealousy that spells death for the unlucky lovers. And, finally, no Liebestod, Wagner’s passionate aria and one of opera’s most beautiful love songs.

It took me the entire first act to adjust to the recitative narrative and dampened emotion but, by the second half, I was enjoying director Andreas Mitisek’s inventive use of the ensemble and the video projections in place of full sets. COT has always been able to do a lot with a little. The twelve singer/actors carried poles that alternately served as spears and ship oars. As to the singing, I found the strong, though brief, performances of King Mark (Nicholas Davis) and Branghien (Brittany Loewen) superior to the duo in the title roles.

COT’s next production will be Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen,” a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Performances are scheduled for November 5, 11 and 13 at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Avenue. But it is the company’s two season-ending productions, “The Invention of Morel” by Stewart Copeland (founder of the rock group The Police) and “The Perfect American” by Philip Glass, his take on Walt Disney.

Tickets for “Fairy Queen” and future productions can be purchased at or at 312/704-8414.




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