Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde
Opéra National de Paris, 2014
Philippe Jordan, Peter Sellars, Bill Viola, Robert Dean Smith, Franz Josef Selig, Violeta Urmana, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Janina Baechle, Raimund Nolte, Pavol Breslik, Piotr Kumon
Opéra Bastille, Paris - 8 April 2014
First produced in 2005, Peter Sellars and Bill Viola's controversial production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is characteristic of the approach that Gérard Mortier was keen to introduce during his tenure as director of the Opéra National de Paris. With the death of Mortier earlier this year, this scheduled première of the 2014 revival of Tristan und Isolde - marked with a minute's silence before the performance - turned out to be a powerful reminder of why Mortier was such an important a figure in the world of opera. His sense of adventure in his efforts to bring opera up to date and make it relevant to a new modern audience will be greatly missed.
Initially thought impossible to perform, Tristan und Isolde remains one of the most challenging works in the entire opera repertoire. Consequently, it demands a challenging response from any director and it should also still challenge an audience. Lacking much in the way of conventional drama, with long passages of obscure monologues and imagery influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Eastern mysticism, Tristan und Isolde is less of a traditional opera than a vast symphonic poem that stretches the limits of an orchestra and singers, as well as the endurance of the audience. Mortier recognised that when he looked beyond the opera world for talent in the art world capable of thinking beyond the confines of traditional opera staging, employing experimental theatre companies (La Fura dels Baus), arthouse film directors (Michael Haneke), and modern artists like video installation artist Bill Viola.
Pairing Viola with Peter Sellars - a more experienced opera director with a very definite tendency to produce experimental visions of familiar works - is one of the most inspired collaborations instigated by Mortier. Engaging a visual artist, a modern artist working in a very new medium, to respond to the extraordinary music and philosophy of Richard Wagner is likely to lead to a very creative and unique vision for the work. Whether they manage to delve into and illuminate those mysteries inherent in the work, or whether the video projections merely illustrate them and give them a visual form, Bill Viola's vision of Tristan und Isolde is nonetheless a distinctive and individualistic response to a monumental piece of music-drama.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, considering where his own areas of interest and those of Wagner coincide, Viola's imagery focuses very much on the contrasts and opposing imagery that is evoked by the two lovers throughout. Light and dark, fire and water, day and night, life and death - these divisions characterise the nature of the love of Tristan und Isolde (divisions that can only be resolved in the fusion of love and death), and they form the basis of Viola's slow-motion long-take video projections. It's a work of extremes, and those extremes are visualised in scenes featuring water in a number of forms (from seas and pools down to basins and jugs of water) and in scenes of fire (from blazing infernos down to rows of little flames on an array of candles).
The imagery is however is a little more complex than the use of extreme states would suggest. There are figures in nearly every scene, and the imagery must be seen to be relating to them. It makes sense that water would feature heavily in the sea passage of Act I where Isolde is being conveyed by Tristan to be the wife of King Marke of Cornwall, and it's duly represented in footage of raging seas and crashing waves. It's also a liquid, a magic potion that transforms or reveals the true nature of the feelings between the Irish Princess her captor. Viola's videos depict a surrogate Tristan and Isolde undergoing a kind of purification, stripped of their garments and inhibitions, plunged into basins, emerging out of pools, showered by attendants with jugs of water.
Act II, the secret encounter of Tristan und Isolde and their discovery by King Marke and Merlot, is by contrast land-based and Viola's approach is a little more abstract. The same two figures still feature prominently and interact with the imagery, but here they are exposed to the fire of passion. That might sound a little clichéd, but there's little that is obvious in the video installations which shows torches in woods, a slow dawning sunrise, the figure of the man approaching and wading through a blazing fire, the woman lighting small tea candles one by one. This is love as an exploration beyond the boundaries of the self, but still at this stage self-contained. Act III's resolution of course pushes those extremes even further and attempts to reconcile them through death or transcendence, and Viola's hypnotic imagery likewise supports the musical epiphany of Wagner's extraordinary music.
Arguably there's still something of a disconnect between the video and the stage, or at least an unfavourable imbalance. One would think that the singers on the stage should be the principal focus for the personification of the characters, but that's not physically possible of course. Expecting seasoned opera singers to be involved in such physical challenges as pacing through blazing fires, plunging in slow motion into and out of water is clearly out of the question, particularly when the singers have more than enough to deal with simply singing the roles. With the playing out of whatever drama there is taking place on screens, this does actually benefit the singers in that it leaves them free to focus on the expression required by these demanding roles.
That's not to say that the singers are necessarily detached from the dramatic playing. It's certainly very much simplified, the stage black, with nothing but a square low platform to lie upon occasionally. Neither Robert Dean Smith nor Violeta Urmana are great actors, but they don't need to be here; the music and the imagery should convey much of what they are singing. It doesn't stop them from trying though. They are opera singers after all and have experience singing these roles, so it's inevitable that they are going to bring some of their own experience to how the passions are expressed. Viola's imagery however at least takes some of the pressure off trying to push to those near-impossible extremes at the edges of human passion.
There's little evidence then of the input of Peter Sellars and perhaps less need for it in this production, but telling little details count. Marke and Merlot, for example, show up early on one or two occasions in Act II, witnessing the lovers in flagrante, but such is the swirl of passions, visualised on the screens and equally hypnotising the viewer, that Tristan and Isolde are entirely oblivious to the presence of anyone else. Just so we are aware that there is an outside world out there, Sellars also extends the drama occasionally out into the theatre, with choruses exploding from left, right and to the back of the amphitheatre, with the Young Seaman echoing off-stage or from one of the Bastille's theatre boxes. It's a surround-sound experience, enhanced all the more by an extraordinarily beautiful account of the work by the orchestra under Philippe Jordan. It has a sweepingly romantic force, pushing those extremes, yet mindful of the little details and of the need to bring them together.
I've seen Robert Dean Smith sing Tristan a few times now, and he just keeps getting better. He's not the most charismatic Tristan and he doesn't have much to offer in the way of acting, falling back on his own routine, but my admiration goes out to anyone who can sing Act III Tristan as well as Smith does here. Violeta Urmana is not always the most consistent singing Verdi and her high end can be a little strained, but it does seem Wagner might be more the forte for her formerly mezzo-soprano voice. There are still a few high notes that don't come out terribly pleasantly, but she sailed through the Liebestod and demonstrated some beautiful phrasing elsewhere. Overall we had good strong singers as Tristan and Isolde here.
We also had a superb King Marke in Franz-Josef Selig. His singing and phrasing were extraordinarily good, truly anguished in his betrayal by Tristan but dignified in his grief. Janina Baechle likewise was a solid and reliable Brangäne, attentive to the moods and the drama with a clear enunciation and expression. Jochen Schmeckenbecher buckled a little in one or two places but was nonetheless a strong and at times impressive Kurwenal. It was a surprise to see Pavol Breslik stand in as a last-minute replacement for the smaller parts of the Shepherd and Young Seaman, but he took this small step into the Wagnerian repertoire well, albeit mostly off-stage, with a forceful and lyrical delivery.
When you have as strong a cast as this, with a production based around Bill Viola's visuals, Peter Sellars' direction and Jordan's handling of the orchestra, it's a powerful reminder of how challenging and ground-breaking a work Tristan und Isolde still is. It's surprising however that, judging by the booing of Viola at the curtain call by a small minority of people, some supposedly intelligent Paris opera goers can't recognise a corresponding challenging, ground-breaking or at least sincere effort to respond to Wagner's intentions. Clearly, we're going to miss Gérard Mortier more than we thought.