13 February 2012

Interview: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet on Isolde in Dallas

The stuff of legends: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet and Clifton Forbis
as Wagner’s immortal lovers.

It’s always painful when Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet sings great music in some place where I can’t get to hear her. It happens too damned often. But the pain is especially acute this week, as she sings one of her touchstone roles, Wagner’s Isolde, with Dallas Opera; a run of four performances begins on Thursday night.

I heard her sing a transcendent Liebestod in Bordeaux a few years ago, and it’s killing me to think that, for once, Jeanne-Michèle is right here in America, singing the whole megillah, and I can’t go. But my regret doesn’t end there.

JMC and Forbis in the same staging, from Geneva.
This production, directed by Olivier Py, was recorded for DVD,
which you can (and should) purchase.

When I was a boy, Tristan und Isolde was the first Wagner opera that Dallas Opera (then known as Dallas Civic Opera) produced, a rite of passage for the company and for me, too, since Tristan was thus the first Wagner opera that I ever attended. (It was also the first time I asked a girl on a date. I was smooth, all right.) To return to Dallas, all these years later, and to hear the opera with fresh, better-educated ears, while a friend sings the heroine’s music, would be magical indeed. No such luck.

But Dallas Opera is also where I launched my journalistic career, interviewing Beverly Sills in her dressing-room before a performance, and so far as sopranos and interviews and Dallas Opera are concerned, at least, my luck is still good. Despite a phenomenally busy rehearsal schedule — in which what was originally planned as a concert performance has been fully staged — Jeanne-Michèle managed to find time to answer a few questions about a work that means a lot to her and about a company she’s clearly pleased to revisit.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, in person.
She grew up in New Orleans, which is sort of next-door to Dallas, if you think of it as a very, very wide door.

WVM: For a while now, the DVD of Tristan from Geneva was the most reliable way for audiences in the United States (your native country, by the way) to get a sense of who you are and what you do.

JMC: This appearance in Dallas feels like the completion of a beautiful circle, and maybe the beginning of another? Clifton Forbis and I did our first Siegmund and Sieglinde here together. Then we did the Geneva Tristan, his first and my second, together.

For me, that was such a magic production. It was the beginning of my close relationship with Olivier Py and a musical highlight in my life to sing this music with the magical Armin Jordan. The DVD that was made there captures so much of that for me. Clif and I are very similar musicians and artists, and our voices work very well together. It is such a joy to be back in T&I and Dallas with him. Old home week.

JMC and Forbis in another scene from the Geneva production

WVM: How has your interpretation of Isolde changed since the Geneva production?

JMC: Of course, every production brings new ideas into my interpretation, and with most roles, every time I sing it (and I mean every time: rehearsal, performance, run-through in my living room), I discover new things, new colorations, new nuances in text and musical phrasing.

I think the biggest change for me is the fleshing out of the character's backstory, both within my life and my imagination. In this production, for example, Isolde has Morold's coat and is in possession of Tristan's original sword. She uses the coat as a comfort, a reminder, a talisman. At first I felt confused by this idea, felt a little Elektra-like, but slowly I have worked the coat into my Isolde: the need to feel that things could have been different, that had Morold lived and she had spent her life with him, everything would be okay.

JMC with Thomas Moser as Tristan, in Naples, 2004.

In my personal opinion and experience of the character of Isolde, Tristan and Isolde were in love at first sight; the potion unleashes their inhibitions, but does not create the love. I find using the coat, using this almost-escapism to her past, makes her younger, more vulnerable in a way. It gives an expression to her weakness/humanity, so, despite the intensity of her rage in Act I, you see the woman who just wants it all to be okay.

WVM: I was around in 1976 for the company’s very first Wagner opera — which just happened to be Tristan. Coming to town decades later, how do you find the company’s command and the audience’s response?

JMC: We will have some public for the general rehearsal [final dress, tonight], so I cannot comment on the audience response. But I can say that this cast is a good as it gets, and the atmosphere is so congenial and positive. We all are reveling in each other's abilities and ideas. Such a fabulous working situation. The production, by Christian Räth (another old friend) is beautiful. Clif (who has sung 100 Tristans) has said that he feels it is one of the truest he has been in.

Roberta Knie and Jon Vickers in Tristan at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 1979, three years after they sang these roles in Dallas.
Only much, much later did I understand how good they were.

WVM: I’ve admired Graeme Jenkins’ conducting on several occasions and in varied repertory, but I’ve never heard him in Wagner. What is he bringing to this music?

JMC: He loves this score and has prepared it so well and with such attention. He is absolutely present with us, and we are making great music. The orchestra is thrilled to play it and has put in a lot of time on the score. I think the audience is in for an exceptional treat.

WVM: Any advice for audiences who’ve never heard this opera before?

JMC: Wagner takes a big commitment of time and energy from performers and audiences alike. The more preparation one does, the more one gets out of it. That said, do not come hungry, or too tired, if possible, and do be ready to be transported.

JMC with Petra Lang as Brangäne. Santiago, Chile, 2007.

Listen both to the voices and the individual voices of instruments and sections in the orchestra. Wagner gives information on many different levels: textually, melodically (both voices and instruments), harmonically, texturally, color-wise, etc. He constantly is guiding the listener in their experiences and the experiences of the characters on stage. Listen for the leitmotifs, and know how every act reverberates into the next, the ripple effect of a stone thrown into a pond, and how all is connected. Another ever-expanding circle.

Tristan und Isolde
Dallas Opera

Thursday, 16 February, 7 PM
Sunday, 19 February, 2 PM
Wednesday, 22 February, 7 PM
Saturday, 25 February, 7 PM
For information and tickets, click here.

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