This weekend, the Washington National Opera delivered a bombshell. Deborah Voigt, the star soprano scheduled to sing Isolde in Wagner’s monumental “Tristan und Isolde” in the company’s season-opening production, starting next Sunday, was withdrawing from the role.
Singing in her stead are Irene Theorin, the Swedish soprano already familiar to WNO audiences from “Siegfried” and other roles, and, for the final performance on Sept. 27, the British soprano Alwyn Mellor, who scored a success as Brünnhilde in Seattle this summer.
To some, Voigt’s action sounded like diva temperament at its worst. But as Voigt, 53, revealed in a frank conversation in a Foggy Bottom restaurant Sunday, the day after the announcement, it was a mutual decision arrived at in her dressing room in a conversation with Francesca Zambello, WNO’s artistic director, who has worked with Voigt for nearly 30 years and is by now a close personal friend.
No great disaster led to this decision. There was simply a feeling, in rehearsals, that some of the toughest passages of this notoriously tough role — like the famous intoxicating climax of Act II — weren’t coming as well as she wanted. After finishing up a last run as Brünnhilde in the Metropolitan Opera’s new “Ring” cycle, another punishing role, Voigt had taken time off this summer, some of it inadvertently when a stomach ailment forced her to cancel another new Wagner role, Ortrud in “Lohengrin,” at short notice. Now, she was having trouble getting her voice back to where she wanted it.