The stage is completely black and square with a giant videoscreen projecting Bill Viola´s continually flowing images on the back wall. The characters are all clad in black in front of (and below) the videoscreen. In many ways not that different from a semi-staged performance, in which form this staging has previously been presented in both Los Angeles and New York under the name The Tristan project. This performance at the Bastille Opera was the revival premiere of the Peter Sellars/Bill Viola Tristan and Isolde from 2005.
Peter Sellars presents his Tristan and Isolde in the programme notes as a story of two wounded people having to accept each others weaknesses. Not without Peter Sellars´k quirkiness, here regarding King Marke: “As he pours out his heart we realize, that the king is just a man, that he was Tristan´s first lover, and that the love that dare not speak its name is as strong as any other love.” However, for once, Peter Sellars seem to merely serve as acompaniement to Bill Viola´s video projections and the only place Peter Sellars was visible was in the programme notes. Except the fact that he lets Marke appear among the fully lit audience at the end of Act 1 and several secondary characters (Brangäne for the 2nd act warnings, the sheperd and the male chorus) appeared on the balconies and behind the audience emphasizing the theater in the theater aspect to the production.
Acclaimed video artist Bill Viola never" intended directly to illustrate the story of Tristan and Isolde, but rather to create an image world exising parallel to the action on stage" (Bill Viola from the programme notes). Tristan and Isolde is “the story of a love so intense and profound that it cannot be contained in the material bodies of their lovers. In order to fully realize their love, Tristan and Isolde must ultimately transcend life itself” (Bill Viola from the programme notes).
In creating the video projections Bill Viola was particularly inspired by the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Tantra and descibes his video art as follows:
Act I concerns “Purification”, the universal act of the individuals preparation for the symbolic sacrifice and death required for the transformation and rebirth of the self.
Act II concerns “The Awakening of the Body of Light” – the release, through the cleansing illumination of love, of the luminous spiritual form encased within the dark inertia of the material body."
Act III concerns "The Dissolution of the Self” in the stages of dying, the delicate and excruciating process of the separation and disintegration of the physical, perceptual and conceptual components.
What we see is thematically related to fire and water, central elements in Bill Violas previous output as well. We start with the undulating sea. Two people approach us from a distance in parallel projections. They undress and are cleansed by water. A placid surface of water is broken during the drinking of the love potion. Later, the fire is introduced; Isolde lights a vast array of candles, Tristan walks unscathed through roaring flames. We see both the earthly and the heavenly Tristan and Isolde, who ultimately disintegrate within cascades of water in the liebestod. Most importantly, however, the video seems to flow within the inner rhythm of the work. A truly extraordinary achievement.
The allegories seem infinite and for those interested a thorough description of Bill Viola´s Tristan videos in context with his other work may be found here.
Even in a staging not at all suited to bring out Waltraud Meier´s well-known formidable dramatic abilities, she still is a mesmerizing Isolde, by vocal means only. Especially when, as yesterday, she was on top form, effortlessly throwing out the high notes (and on pitch as well)..
If a Tristan both looks and acts like a real man, I am inclined to cut him a considerable amount of slack in the vocal department, if necessary. And Clifton Forbis, in this regard, probably is the most convincing Tristan on a major stage today as demonstrated with a fine DVD Tristan from Geneva in 2005. On the positive side, Forbis had no trouble throwing out the high notes on pitch. On the negative side, he seemed to have trouble with everything else, appearing severely overchallenged with a voice that seemed almost broken in the middle to lower register. Futhermore he seemed entirely at the end of his vocal road in Act 1, but thereafter became slightly better. Hopefully that curve will continue during the run of performances.
Franz-Josef Selig was a fine, sonorous King Marke. If only Peter Sellars had not made him act like a complete wimp without dignity. Curiously, Marke kissed Tristan on the mouth in the premiere run I have been informed, but this feature has now disappeared..
Ekaterina Gubanova also a fine Brangäne, though with an occasionally too heavy vibrato especially in the Act 2 warnings. A solid and resonant Kurwenal was delivered from Alexandro Marco-Buhrmester.
Semyon Bychov received raptuous applause, slightly surprising as I found his interpretation to consist mainly of 1) consistant mezzoforte/forte playing, without exploring the full dynamic range of the score, and 2) non-fluent tempi shift. Almost each time a decisive section started (such Isoldes Act 1 narration or the drinking of the love potion) tempi were abruptly changed – equally divided between the slow and the fast - and kept steady until the next section presented a new shift in tempo. Generally Semyon Bychov´s reading is on the fast side, which is far preferable to being on the slow side, unless genuinely capable of bringing off the long lines, which I didn´t hear much of with Bychov. That said, the orchestral quality as such is high and what they played, they played well.
Many found this staging revelatory when it opened in 2005 and I clearly see why. Ultimately, however, I didn´t to the degree that I expected. Why, I don´t know. Component by component this staging has everything. Perhaps the metaphysical vs. interpersonal drama rate was ultimately too high? Or perhaps I couldn´t distance myself enough from the fact that despite fine moments, Semyon Bychov is no Daniel Barenboim..
To summarize, this is without doubt one of the most innovative approaches to any of Wagners work ever to be seen on stage and strongly recommended for anyone close to Paris.
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):
Waltraud Meier: 5
Clifton Forbis: 3
Ekaterina Gubanova: 4
Franz-Josef Selig: 4
Alexandro Marco-Buhrmester: 4
Peter Sellars concept (includes Bill Viola): 5
Semyon Bychov: 3
Overall impression: 4-5