La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2019
Alain Altinoglu, Ralf Pleger, Alexander Polzin, Bryan Register, Franz-Josef Selig, Ann Petersen, Andrew Foster-Williams, Nora Gubisch, Wiard Witholt, Ed Lyon
La Monnaie Streaming - May 2019
Say what you like about La Monnaie's strict policy on bold and sometimes bizarre modern productions, but they always look fantastic. And with Alain Altinoglu currently chief musical director, they sound fantastic too. That's good news for something like Tristan und Isolde, a work that operates on an abstract plane that inspires leaps of creativity without the necessity to adhere to any kind of real world naturalism. It certainly makes a leap in this production directed by film director Ralf Pleger with set designs by artist Alexander Polzin, who rise to the challenge that few other works can aspire to with a production that really does look and sound fantastic.
The exploration of the deep mysteries of love, death and human spirituality almost calls out for an art installation presentation and lately opera houses have been turning more and more to creators in the plastic arts (and even architects in some cases) to lend their hand to representations of the human and philosophical content of Wagner operas. Tristan und Isolde has seen interpretations from Bill Viola in Paris and Anish Kapoor at the ENO in London, and there's no doubt that a work that is one of the greatest achievements of the performing arts benefits from the imagination, creativity of this kind of cross-fertilisation with other art disciplines.
There's evidently no sign of anything like a ship then in Act I of La Monnaie's Tristan und Isolde. It least follows a similar abstract approach to Pierre Audi's 2016 production of the opera at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, with a cool green/blue colour scheme, the figures dressed in white ceremonial robes, the sky here decorated with huge icy stalactites that descend down to the stage between the figures and glow. There are a few other abstract props - Isolde appearing on the stage wearing a broken kite-like frame, but it's relatively simple in his adherence to mood, drawing the focus very firmly and effectively onto Isolde's icy fury at her captivity.
Ann Petersen carries the full drama of conflicted anger and mounting madness in that respect, the notion of death already present and associated with love in her recounting of Tristan's murder of her fiancé Morold and his supplanting himself fatally in that disturbed impressionable psyche at being held hostage in marriage to Marke. There's no need for love potions in this production to bring about the magical event of Tristan and Isolde's love, it's something that comes from within, implacably, following no logic or reason but a deep internal yearning and reaction to complex psychological disturbances, and it's enough that the music and singing carry the full weight of its conviction.
Act II is even more impressive in how it captures the complexity of those feelings that Tristan and Isolde feel for each other within a huge Alexander Polzin plaster sculpture that is surprisingly adaptable to the ebb and flow of moods and mounting desire. The sculpture takes the form of a thick mass of twisted truncated tree branches erupting out of the earth, with naked figures of dancers entwined within it. With shifts of light and use of shadows it conforms to the changing moods, primarily lust that ripples across the branches as the naked bodies weave and slide through it. Seen like this, you can't imagine Act II being done in any other way that expresses the sensations, emotions and spiritual content so perfectly.
Again, the apparent simplicity of the Act III backdrop reveals complex patterns of darkness, light and casting of shadows; black holes one minute, shafts of light the next or the suggestion of stars. The use of colour blending with the light offers infinite gradations of expression that aren't so much representational of Wagner's score as offering another dimension to its moods and sentiments. And yes, it is as abstract as that sounds, evoking a hallucinatory 'trip' according to director Ralf Pleger, where love is the drug, but should we not be looking for deeper commentary or interpretation in Tristan und Isolde?
Some directors like Dmitri Tcherniakov at Berlin in 2018 might be more interested in the dramaturgical and psychological than the spiritual and the ineffable, but that's not the case with Pleger and Polzin's vision of the work. The La Monnaie production is as enigmatic and open to personal interpretation as the work itself, operating on a level of pure sensation, caught up in the rapture of the world's greatest lovers; a love that is impossible to grasp without it completely overshadowing life, stretching beyond the boundaries of being, becoming an all-consuming self-contradictory destructive/transcendental force.
The musical and singing performances are supremely up to the greatness of the work and the stage production that has been developed for it. Ann Petersen perfectly meets the requirements of mood and character; urgent, anxious and soaringly rapturous, both human and aspiring to supra-human. Bryan Register is an impressive Tristan, unfaltering, likewise finding a perfect equilibrium between control and abandonment to the discovery of such depth of feeling and the transformative nature of that force. There are flawless performances too from Franz-Josef Selig's Marke, Andrew Foster-Williams's Kuwenal and Nora Gubisch's Brangäne.
Alain Altinoglu's conducting of the La Monnaie is also deeply impressive. I really don't think I've heard the work performed with such sensitivity and attention to detail of pace and mood, never letting the romantic surges overwhelm, but showing how they arise out of the internal and external drama, carrying the singers and the audience along, reminding you what a work of supreme beauty and genius Tristan und Isolde is. This is a spectacle and a performance befitting of one of the greatest artistic creations in any medium. Simply stunning.
Links: La Monnaie - MM Channel