September 11, 2013 at 7:20 pm EDT | by Greg Marzullo
Epic beginnings
Tristan und Isolde, opera, gay news, Washington Blade, Ian Storey

Ian Storey in ‘Tristan und Isolde’ coming to the Washington National Opera. (Photo courtesy of the Washington National Opera)

‘Tristan und Isolde’
Sept. 15-27
‘The Force of Destiny’
Oct. 12-26
Kennedy Center
2700 F St., N.W.

Washington National Opera fall season can best be described as fateful, in no small part due to the repertoire chosen by artistic director Francesca Zambello. Although she took over the helm of the company in January of this year, the 2013-2014 lineup marks the first full season she’s planned, so it’s fitting that both of this fall’s main stage operas hinge on inscrutable turns of fortune’s wheel.

Richard Wagner’s legendary love story “Tristan und Isolde” opens the gate, in a production borrowed from Opera Australia and directed by Neil Armfield, a gay theater and opera director who makes his WNO debut with this production. Swedish soprano Irene Theorin will star as Isolde. She replaces Deborah Voight, who withdrew from the production. British soprano Alwyn Mellor will sing the final performance on Sept. 27.

Joining Theorin are two Tristans, the primary being Ian Storey (last seen here in a 2008 “Flying Dutchman”) with one performance taken by Clifton Forbis in his company debut. Storey has a rich history with Tristan, including opening the 2007 opera season at La Scala with the role. His 20-plus year career has brought him all over the world — a far cry from his humble upbringing as the youngest in a long line of English coalminers — but his La Scala Tristan reportedly lacked some of the Wagnerian heft sought after by enthusiasts. Hopefully, the intervening years have helped him round out his interpretation.

This production marks the 200th birthday anniversary of Wagner, whose operatic version of the Tristan myth was first performed in 1865. The story follows the star-crossed title lovers, but more than just a simple love-gone-awry cautionary tale, “Tristan und Isolde” highlights themes of personal transfiguration through love’s transcendent consummation.

Forces beyond the protagonists’ control rule the lives of WNO’s next offering, Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” (here titled in English as “The Force of Destiny”). Zambello directs this new production of Verdi’s mammoth story about the cruel twists of fate that plague the Incan hero Alvaro and his Spanish love Leonora. WNO audiences haven’t seen “Forza” in decades and Zambello has assembled a strong cast of singers for this sweeping work.

Adina Aaron takes on the role of Leonora, sharing it for two performances with Amber Wagner. Opera fans will wait breathlessly for her famous final act aria “Pace, pace mio Dio,” where the heroine begs God for emotional peace despite the tumultuous love she still feels raging in her heart for a man she’s forsworn. It’s Verdi at his best, and Aaron’s career features a strong Verdian presence, most notably Aida, Amelia in “Ballo” and now “Forza’s” Leonora. Her large voice and stage command might just be an electrifying presence in a sometimes-wandering piece, although in many ways, the grounding force of the opera is the tenor.

Chilean singer Giancarlo Monsalve plays Alvaro, sharing the role only briefly with Rafael Davila (seen here last year as Pollione in the company’s hauntingly beautiful “Norma”). His ringing heroic tenor also seems like a dream for the tormented Alvaro, although his real challenge will be to scale the voice back when appropriate, adding human warmth to the drama instead of overdone Italianate bellowing, a temptation for any spinto style tenor.

Leonora’s brother Don Carlo is shared between Ángel Ódena and Luca Salsi, both bringing strong pedigrees to the role.

Part of the excitement around “Forza” is the conductor Xian Zhang. A diminutive Chinese woman who has quickly risen to great heights on the world conducting podium, Zhang’s reviews have hailed her ability to draw riveting performances from orchestras in complex works as diverse as Brahms and Chinese composer Chen Yi. While seeing a woman conducting opera isn’t a novelty, it’s rare enough to take note. In an interview with the Blade last spring, Zambello alluded to the fact that audiences could plan on seeing more women involved in top positions during upcoming WNO seasons.

Along with that promise is the premiere of Jeanine Tesori’s opera “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me,” a musical version of Jeanette Winterson’s charming children’s book of the same title. The story takes place shortly before the birth of Jesus, when a donkey is up for a very special job — carrying the Virgin Mary to Bethlehem. Tesori is best known for her Tony-nominated musical theater scores: “Twelfth Night,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Caroline, or Change.” WNO will run Tesori’s opera in December as its holiday offering.

At the start of her tenure, Zambello talked about wanting a more interactive opera experience, and with the plethora of post- and pre-performance talk-backs and lectures, the company appears hopeful of courting burgeoning opera fans, as well as the old standbys.

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