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Abbreviated 'Tristan' Is Still Long on Passion

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page C01

Virginia Opera's worthy traveling caravan pulls into the Center for the Arts at George Mason University this weekend with "Tristan und Isolde," Richard Wagner's haunted, shiveringly beautiful rhapsody on the themes of love and death. There will be two performances -- tonight at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2.

The company is based in Norfolk, where it presents 20 performances of four operas a year. In 1994, however, by a unanimous vote of the Virginia General Assembly, it was named the "official opera company of the commonwealth of Virginia." In keeping with that designation, Virginia Opera has been presenting its productions at the Landmark Theater in Richmond and at George Mason -- eight performances in each theater per year. While "Tristan" has been presented in the capital area many times -- most recently in the Washington National Opera's much-admired production from 1999 -- the current staging is advertised as the opera's "Virginia premiere."

As Tristan, Thomas Rolf Truhitte spends much of his stage time partially undressed. His singing voice is nice, too. (Anne M. Peterson)

"Tristan" has been abridged considerably for Virginia Opera's production, with some small trims in Act 1 and more substantial cuts in Acts 2 and 3. These bring the opera in at a little less than four hours, including two intermissions. According to Peter Mark, Virginia Opera's artistic director, the cuts were made in consideration of the two leading singers, who are performing the roles for the first time, and also "for the sake of dramatic pacing for our audiences, who are accustomed to three-hour operas."

Nobody denies that "Tristan" demands extraordinary stamina, especially from the leading tenor. Even Placido Domingo has always refused to sing the role of Tristan in the opera house (he has just completed recording the work for EMI, but allowed himself long periods of rest between singing bouts). Moreover, a listener who doesn't know the opera well would have considerable difficulty identifying the seams in Virginia Opera's patchwork. But Wagner inspires passionate devotion among his most fervent advocates: Purists should consider themselves warned.

Cuts notwithstanding, there is much to admire in this "Tristan." Mark conducts with a sure and sweeping understanding of the score, and he summons a big orchestra sound from what is only a medium-size ensemble. In Norfolk, where I saw the opera a week and a half ago, he was struggling against obstructive noises from the heating system, which interfered with Wagner's long periods of silence (and silence has rarely been so carefully "composed" as it is in "Tristan"). He also had to deal with an audience that insisted upon interrupting the opera's final chords with a shockingly insensitive round of reflexive applause before the last note had died away, handily shattering one of the most profound and hard-won catharses in the repertory.

Thomas Rolf Truhitte, who played Tristan, has a fine, firm tenor voice of considerable heft and amplitude; thankfully, he can sing softly, too, and made much of the rapt, ecstatic urgency of the love duet. It helps that he actually looks the part of a handsome, noble knight; as in Virginia Opera's production of "Die Walkure" a few years ago, Truhitte spends much of his time partially undressed. Now there's a new one for the classical marketers -- the "Topless Tenor." Can't miss.

Truhitte was well matched by Marjorie Elinor Dix's Isolde. If her voice is somewhat light for the part (necessitating some explosive force in the most strenuous moments), her singing generally has a fresh, lyric quality that is quite unusual in this music and very much in keeping with the young Irish princess she portrayed. Charles Robert Austin sang with sadness, sensitivity and an affecting bass-baritone voice as King Marke. It was difficult to hear Mary Ann Stewart's Brangane in her Act 2 watch, which she was mysteriously directed to sing from the very back of the stage: I hope this will be corrected in Fairfax, for she would seem to have a lovely dark voice. Baritone Nmon Ford proved a brilliant and exciting Kurwenal, and there was adept support from Daniel Snyder, Michael Dailey, Danny Markham and Juan Donyea Dunn.

Brangane aside, Lillian Groag's stage direction was smart and concise and fit well into the modular ship's hull set that designer Michael Ganio fashioned to pack and run -- from Norfolk to Fairfax and then on to Richmond -- in the best manner of the traveling shows from long ago.

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