Voigt’s cancellation was probably best for all concerned. Voigt, 53, is not fully a Wagnerian in the sense that her 50-year-old replacement, Irene Theorin, is. Ideally, you want a stunning sound from an Isolde, but at the very least you don’t want to have to worry about the singer; Theorin has sung the role around the world and has a big honker of a voice.
Indeed, after hearing her only a few times (most recently in the WNO’s “Ariadne auf Naxos”), I had an impression that she was simply a loud singer, and was therefore happily surprised by the nuanced, quiet singing that proved to be the best feature of Sunday’s “Isolde.” In a lot of Act I, and quite a bit of the concluding “Liebestod,” what captured your ear was not a huge sound but focused singing over a hushed orchestra that brought out the chamber-opera elements in this powerhouse role. Little of the color and nuance of these moments survived when she opened up her fortes in long-standing, pumping-out-sound Wagnerian tradition, but they added a lot to her portrayal.
Tristan is a thankless role. Both these lead roles are legendarily difficult, but the tenor has to hold the stage alone for a punishing marathon at the start of Act III, after which Isolde steals the show with the “Liebestod,” one of the greatest moments in all of opera. (Forgive the hyperbole, but it is, for once, warranted.)
If these observations qualify my criticisms of the tenor Ian Storey, so much the better; sadly, I didn’t find much to be thankful for in his portrayal, either. He is capable of making some beautiful sounds when he pulls the pressure off his voice — his crestfallen reply to King Marke (Wilhelm Schwinghammer), after Marke’s anguished monologue about the betrayal of finding Tristan, his best friend, sleeping with Isolde, his wife, rang true as crystal. But in many of the heightened moments with Isolde, Storey’s voice took on the unclear quality of conglomerate rock, a sense of a slightly grainy composite.
Both Tristan and Isolde have sidekicks: part of Wagner’s compositional balance. Both of them took a while to warm up on Sunday: part of the breaks of opening day. Elizabeth Bishop, as Brangäne (she who swaps out Isolde’s death potion for a love potion in Act I) fell a little flat during her gorgeous supporting role in the Act II love duet but regained crispness, clarity and color in Act III, while James Rutherford, as Kurwenal, Tristan’s loyal henchman, somewhat improved on a sound that had been wobbly and off-pitch.