Friday 31 October 2008

Sellars Viola Tristan and Isolde in Paris

Tristan and Isolde. Paris Bastille Opera, October 30rd, 2008. Director: Peter Sellars with video projections by Bill Viola. Cast: Waltraud Meier (Isolde), Clifton Forbis (Tristan), Ekaterina Gubanova (Brangäne), Hans-Josef Selig (King Marke), Alexandro Marco-Buhrmester (Kurwenal), Ralf Lukas (Melot) . Conductor: Semyon Bychov. Further information here.

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


Anonymous said...

As I can see you could make it :)))) happy for it...

Anonymous said...

Great review, as usual, mostly...
Since you were in Paris on the 30th, did you attend yesterday's concert performance of Messiaen's Saint François in Salle Pleyel? I was there and... whao !!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that Bychov has speeded up his tempi. Some 10 years ago, in Turin, I attended a concert performance of Tristan's II Act with him conducting and it lasted nearly 1 hour and three quarters. In general, I was not impressed by his conducting and what you wrote confirms definitively that he is not a Wagner-conductor.

Anonymous said...

Should anyone be intereted, I happenened to actually sing in a Wagner production under Bychkov'sbaton, about twelve years ago, in Parsifal at Théâtre du Châtelet [I was one of the lesser knights]
The general impression among the cast was that Bychkov was indeed not a Wagner-conductor, and probably not a good conductor at all...

mostly opera... said...

Did unfortunately miss the Messiaen due to the change of flights...

Anonymous said...

The performances at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC, while brilliant conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, also lacked a theatricality which the early reviews would lead one to believe was there. In fact Esa was the only 'theatrical' thing about the (long) evening

Anonymous said...

Sorry to disagree on this one Mostly. I totally loved the set. To me Viola & Sellars revitalized the Wagner's gesamtkunst approach - they add on the artistic video which simply soaks you extra in this stunningly beautiful score.

For once I'm happy there was no ridiculous scaffolding to make it look like a ship that we're often served in T&I. The whole concept here is conceived to make you musically drowned IN THE THEATER! It definitely wouldn't make a good DVD, but in the theater I found it just impeccable.

OTOH, I fully agree with your assessment of Bychkov's conducting. Alas...

In any case very glad you could see it on the first night (in spite of all the circumstances). Cheers

Hariclea said...

Glad you made it and thanks for the wonderful review :-) Sounds to me like the concept contributes interestingly to the piece and while the peformance may not have been perfect sounds like you found it enjoyable nevertheless :-)

marcillac said...

Glad you made it, in resilient defiance of the logistical complications.

Really iformative and interesting description. I was out of town when they had this in New York last year and based on you description more than anything else I've read am sorry I missed (although I'm glad to have been where I was at that time).

Anonymous said...

It is the worse production I have ever seen in my life. I saw this horror in 2005. What Sellars (I loved Nixon in China) and Viola (I am a devoted admirer of Bill Viola) didn’t understand is that opera has something to do with creating a focal point for the ear and for the eye. The problem in this production is that you have to choose between looking at the singers (which gives the opportunity to concentrate ear and eye on the same point- and ignoring this expensive video and the main originality of the production) and looking at the video ( which completely destructurates the mind, because it is impossible never to look at the singers). And it was impossible for me to make a choice. Because I didn’t want to look either at the video nor at the singers.

The video, -I don’t care if it deals with purification, with the awakening of the body of light, or with the dissolution of the self, this cheap intellectualism being completely unbearable,- only functions when it can be considered as a traditionnal setting. It happens at the beginning of the first act, when we see the sea (we are in a boat OK ?), at the beginning of the second act when Isolde sings love in front of a flame -nice moment indeed-, and at the end of the second act, when Marke sings sadness in front of a tree. The remaining episodes are drowned in a mix of ridicule and ugliness (the hit being at the end of the first act when two particularly horrible representatives of the human race-one male and one female- get undressed and plunge in a kind of swimming pool (half an hour of getting undressed and plunging…)).

The stage, well, there is nothing to look at. Tristan and Isolde don’t seem particularly interested in each other . Perhaps are they expecting a four-persons sex party with the two horrible people in the video but in this case, they have particularly bad taste. They are not particularly interested in drama because Isolde has no chance at all to kill anybody with the ridiculous knife Tristan gives her during their first scene together. They just give an impression of sitting there, on a bench, on an empty stage, and it is just what they are doing. They are not particularly interested in death because Isolde doesn’t seem to notice that Tristan is dead when she arrives at the end of the third act.

Ugliness and irrelevance on the video, nothingness on the stage… If it is one of the most innovative approaches to any of Wagners work ever to be seen on stage, I don’t care about innovation. It is a pity that the DVD doesn’t really give a true image of the extraordinary production of Olivier Py in Geneva. It was a visual pleasure and a deep emotional experience. Recently I saw the more controversial production of Gunther Kraemer in Vienna. The settings are bleak, dreary. Tristan and Isolde love each other in some sort of social security office. Tristan dies there on a chair. It is sometimes difficult to look at but thanks to this production, I realized that Tristan and Isolde was a very sad story indeed, and I didn’t lose my time. But frankly, with Sellars and Viola…

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the previous reviewer. This was, quite simply, the worst production of any opera I have ever seen in my life.

We'd travelled from London to see it - mostly, to be honest, to see Waltraud Meier, but with a good deal of interest in what Sellars and Viola had done with the staging - so my sense of disappointment was perhaps disproportionate. Nevertheless, the glorious Ms Meier excluded, it was a horrible evening. We'd discovered the previous night that the Bastille opera is a disaster - luckily, we had cheap (by Paris standards) seats for The Cunning Little Vixen - with appalling acoustics which simply swallow up the singers' voices, horribly cramped and uncomfortable seats, and the cavernous feel of an empty aircraft hangar.

Tristan was a dreadful mess; Sellars appears to have done nothing other than provide programe notes based on a wilful and obtuse misreading of the text - the performers mostly mill about glumly in the dark with nothing to do, looking as bored as I quickly started to feel. Viola's video installations were pitiful: Act I - what looked like a weekend visit to a Californian health spa; Act II - a Calvin Klein ad; Act III - someone's scuba diving home movies, a crib from Lawrence of Arabia and stuff that looked like a 10-year-old video game.

To top it all and make the evening complete, my wife, who had been fighting a virus all week, started feeling really ill in the last quarter-hour of act 2; knowing we just had to get through King Marke's big scene we decided to stay put rather than disturb the apparantly enraptured Parisians, with me fanning her with a programme to try and stop her from fainting.

Big mistake. As soon as the house lights went up, our fellow opera-goers turned on us like a pack of angry dogs attacking a sick puppy. I've literally never experienced anything like this anywhere else in the world - I mean, abusing someone who is obviously not feeling well! Nothing I could say would placate them, and it turned into an ugly slanging match as I began to lose my temper. One of these people went so far as to start the whole thing off again in the queue for the toliets, badgering Abigail even more about her disgraceful lack of consideration in being unwell! Luckily, I wasn't there or I would, I think, have decked him.

And all this when the sweet-eaters, fidgeters, coughers and whisperers had been in full swing for most of the evening! Grrrr...

So - the lovley Waltraud apart - definitely my worst night at the opera in over 2O years, and not one I'm likely to forget in a hurry!

Oh, and Bychov couldn't conduct his way out of a paper bag either.

Carol said...

Hi "mostly". Just back from Paris where I watched Sellars/Viola Tristan. Once more, thanks to your review. I've read the other 11 (!!!) comments, and I must say I am more inclined to agreed with the last two... I didn't think, though, that it was a total lost of time (and money, since I flew all the way from Berlin just to watch it), and some moments in the video (mainly Act II) were indeed very poetic, matching the music rather well. BUT.... I must agree with NV... I simply could not focus between the video and the singers. Act I was like a torture, looking up and down, then up again... oh! At a point, I felt dizzy of so many eye-gimnastics!!! Once I decided to ignore the video (as far as it was possible), and focused on the singers (who were giving a wonderful performance) I relaxed and started to enjoy the evening. Acts II and III went well, with a surprising note to Forbis who delivered a touching performance in act III. As for Mrs. Meier, it was as always top-class performance, though I wasn't as lucky as you, for she did not reach some of the high notes, and I just couldn't hear some passages in Act I (maybe due to the terrible accoustics of the Bastille Opera). Anyway, her acting is always fantastic and the thrill she projects with her voice, amazing.
A final note on Bychkov: last night he received a loud applause, but I must agree with the current consensus here - definately not a wagnerian... too superficial for my taste - IMO, due to a complete lack of tension on the strings - and yesterday he was in a particular slow mood, the whole performance lasted more than 6 hours!!! At the end, it was a good Tristan, with a particular balanced cast, but nothing really special.

lembelind said...

I saw this performance in Paris last Wednesday, and I was blown away by the production and the juxtaposition of singing and videography on stage...simply otherworldly! I actually enjoyed M Bychov's tempi, which were varied and inspired. I could actually see his movements clearly and they had a something that I would call "passion". On the other hand, I then had a chance to hear Mr. Daniel Barenboim do it at the Met on Friday night--and although I like him very much-- I was, however, disappointed with how restrained the dynamics were and how extremely slow his tempi oozed out of the pit.., like molasses on a cold January day in Manhattan. (It's only late November/ early December.) The intermission at the MET had to be rushed and the production could not compare to the Bill Viola/ Peter Sellars conception, which is by far more imaginative and is a truer realization of Gesamtkunstwerk in a modern, yet timeless way... The Met production seemed to me more artificial & manufactured. It was really hard to believe the characters in the MET production, and to put up with the same ship all three acts in a row, give or take a few branches and leaves. I missed seeing Brangena and Kurwenal lit up in a balcony or hearing the chorus singing from the back of the theatre...their sounds sometimes coming out from the very walls...Ms. Mieir's sound is so genuine...Mr. Forbis is believable...the Bill Viola artists are consummate...their movements so eloquent.... I'm so glad I attended The Bastille production first. It was like making love for five hours my last night in Paris, and being so present that time and space dissolve into nothingness. All that remains is experience itself.

curzon said...

Some very foolish and ignorant remarks about Bychov's conducting above! I did not see the Tristan but his conducting of Lohengrin was superb. Hard to believe that someone so good in Lohengrin could be a complete disater in Tristan!

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