Tristan and Isolde: Before the movie, there was the opera

If you’re sick of the second-rate romances saturating contemporary pop culture, now’s your chance to pay homage to one of the oldest and most enduring love stories of all time. June 20 marked the debut of Teatro Municipal’s production of Richard Wagner’s famous opera, Tristan and Isolde.

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The composition, which was completed between 1857 and 1859, is loosely based on German author Gottfried von Strasburg’s 13th century romantic narrative, Tristan. Wagner’s celebrated masterpiece tells the story of an Irish princess, Isolde, who falls wildly in love with a knight belonging to the court of her betrothed. As in the majority of medieval romances, the lovers’ attempts to sustain their clandestine romance ends in tragedy.

Anyone who has seen the 2006 film adaption of the opera and is envisioning a production full of young strapping warriors and delicate princesses will be sorely disappointed. Although the vocal talent of Kirsi Tiihonen and Jon Fredric West, as “Isolde” and “Tristan” respectively, is undeniable, they certainly do not fit the typical iconic representation of the ill-fated lovers.

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In addition, they share patchy chemistry, and the audience had to exercise a willing suspension of disbelief during certain love scenes, in which the pair exchanged awkward embraces devoid of passion. Fortunately, West and Tiihonen were able to overcome these shortcomings with the sheer power of their voices. They were particularly spectacular in the third act, when each had the opportunity to showcase his or her abilities in an extended solo.

Perhaps the strongest vocal performance of the evening was delivered by Kristinn Signmundsson as Tristan’s uncle and king of Cornwall, “Rey Marke.” Sigmundsson, a native Icelander, first appeared in the second act of the opera and captivated the audience with his resonant bass and commanding stage presence.

The success of the production would also not have been possible had it not been for the dazzling performance of Santiago’s philharmonic orchestra. Under the direction of renowned Israeli conductor Rani Calderon, Wagner’s complicated composition came to life, and the orchestra skillfully captured the tension and anticipation that permeates Tristan and Isolde. Each act was preceded by an overture, setting the mood for the action to follow, and it was during these moments that the true skill of the ensemble was on full display.

Possibly the greatest triumph of the evening was the set design, developed by Chilean designer Ramon Lopez. The stage itself was relatively bare, with a series of moving platforms that rose or fell depending on the scene. The bulk of the dramatic landscape was created by a projector, which superimposed etching-like images over the stage. The result was a performance that looked as though it was going on in the middle of a snow globe, with the actors suspended between layers of glass. The multidimensional backdrop was further enhanced by videos of the sea, which occasionally appeared behind the stage.

The opera acknowledged its literary origins by opening each act with a freeze frame, storybook image that slowly fades into the action of the scene. This fairytale-esque theatrical device reminds the audience that Tristan and Isolde is one of the oldest and most famous love stories of all time, and gives the romance a feeling of immortality.

If you find the thought of sitting through over four hours of German opera daunting, don’t be discouraged. Teatro Municipal, foreseeing this problem, has installed a screen above the stage that provides the audience with a Spanish translation of all the lyrics throughout the course of the production. The theater has also gone to great lengths to accommodate younger individuals and offers significant discounts to guests under the age of 27. You don’t need a vast knowledge of opera to enjoy Tristan and Isolde, you just have to appreciate a good love story!

Tristan and Isolde
Teatro Municipal
Augustinas 794, Santiago
Metro Santa Lucia
Remaining Shows: Saturday June, 27 at 5pm and Tuesday June, 30 at 6pm
Tickets: CP$20,000 – CP$140,000
www.municipal.cl

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