Having gone without Richard Wagner's music for so long, Chicago suddenly has become Wagner Central.
This weekend, local devotees will be able to catch a major portion of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a complete "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" at Lyric Opera, as well as a multimedia exploration of "Tristan" and its enormous effect on the course of classical music, also at the CSO. By happy coincidence, on March 2 the Metropolitan Opera will transmit its new production of "Parsifal" to movie theaters across the area, as part of its "Live in HD" series.
The CSO's major contribution to the composer's bicentenary arrived Thursday night at Symphony Center, where Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted an exciting if vocally uneven concert version of Act 2 of Wagner's "Tristan." Listeners got to experience one of the world's great Wagner orchestras performing perhaps the most symphonic of the master's stage works.
Hearing "Tristan" in such close proximity to "Meistersinger" underscored how very different musically and stylistically the one masterpiece is from the other, even though they date from the same period.
Listeners less tolerant of Wagner's tendency to carry his mystical philosophizing to extravagant lengths in "Tristan" should find Salone's performance, which lasts roughly 70 minutes, easy to live with, especially with Sonya Friedman's English surtitles to help them navigate the wordy text.
Act 2 is the beating heart – the musical and dramatic crux – of "Tristan," a magnificent canvas of continuous melody and aching, unresolved harmonies that crystallizes the inner meanings of this profoundly symbolic music drama.
Here the protagonists – the knight Tristan and the princess Isolde, who have fallen desperately in love after their true feelings are awakened by a potion – pour out their illicit passion for each other. Theirs is a passion that can thrive only under the protective cover of darkness, can only be fulfilled in the blessed oblivion of eternal night. Wagner's death-intoxicated music never relaxes its grip on an audience. The listener, like the characters themselves, is caught up in a powerful trajectory of emotions quite unlike any other experience in music.
Salonen always was a rigorous craftsman in his music-making, especially in the 20th and 21st century repertory where his clear beat and keen ear for orchestral sound allowed one to hear every line and detail. All of this was true of his performance on Thursday, but the big difference between then and now is that the head and heart are in better balance. Turning up the emotional heat far more than usual, conducting in sweeping arcs, the normally cool Finn was possessed by the music as much as he was in control of it.
The results, from an orchestral standpoint, were thrilling to behold, not just in the lush climactic moments but also in the tender pages of the score. The Chicago Symphony played wonderfully for Salonen, producing a rich, deep, saturated sound.
Salonen preceded Act 2 of "Tristan" with the famous Prelude to the opera, turning this 12 minutes of history-making music into a "Tristan" tone poem that whetted one's anticipation of what was to follow.
Both the German heldentenor Stefan Vinke, who sang Tristan, and the American soprano Linda Watson, the Isolde, are experienced Wagnerians, having tackled the leading roles of Siegfried and Brunnhilde in the "Ring" cycle throughout Europe. Neither possesses a particularly beautiful voice but both soldiered through their punishing roles capably.
Watson has the lungpower, thrust and steadiness to slice through Wagner's formidable orchestra, and she made pleasing use of her vocal resources when Isolde was required to sing softly. Too bad the top sometimes turned hard and strident.
Vinke sang with a clear, bright, somewhat reedy timbre, but improper breath support and a lack of tonal heft caused the pitch to sag, particularly toward the end. Also, there was insufficient heft and upholstery around the sound for it carry without his having to shout.
That left bass-baritone John Relyea to dominate the performance with his majestically tragic King Mark. Also impressive were the dark luster and deeply expressive phrasing mezzo Michelle DeYoung brought to the role of Brangane, Isolde's confidante, who maintained her solemn watch from a corner of the lower balcony. The solid supporting cast consisted of tenor Sean Panikkar as Melot and baritone Daniel Eifert as Kurwenal.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $31-$239; 312-294-3000. Creative director Gerard McBurney will lead a Beyond the Score multi-media exploration of Wagner's opera, "The Tristan Effect," at 3 p.m. Sunday; $24-$142; cso.org.