Seen and Heard International
Heppner and Meier triumph in video
Tristan: Tristan und Isolde, Opéra
national de Paris, 16 April 2005 by Stefan Lühle
If there was a highlight to Gerard Mortier’s first season
in charge of the Paris opera, this was it. The scrum of billet-seekers
jostling for a place around the vast glass façade of the
Opera Bastille was further proof. Tristan und Isolde is
the hottest ticket in town.
Mortier has championed the work of Californian video artist Bill
Viola and stage director on Peter Sellars often enough before.
But this was the first time he brought the two men together.
Although Viola’s vast video images dominated both the stage
and the publicity, the real sensation of the evening was the cast.
It was full of potential risks, not least Waltrad Meier’s
Isolde. Yet every risk paid off. A cast like this could sing Tristan
immobile in their pyjamas and it would still be riveting.
Meier and Heppner are an ideally-matched pair. It is rare enough
for any Tristan to equal his Isolde in the second act, but Heppner
gave as good as he got, with a sound as powerful as it was unforced
and musical. He is the ultimate Heldentenor, untiring
and coherent, courageous and moving. Meier is a born stage creature,
irresistible to watch and commanding when she sings. Hers was
an authoritative yet feminine Isolde, technically formidable,
passionate and unflagging.
The smaller roles were also impressively cast, especially Yvonne
Naef’s warmly attentive Brangäne. Toby Spence made
the double role of young seaman and shepherd into precisely-phrased
miniature art-works. Franz-Josef Selig’s King Marke was
resonant and profound, Jukka Rasilainen’s Kurwenal deeply-felt
Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen chose surprisingly broad tempi and
showed commendable respect for tradition. The pacing was careful,
the mood intense, the colours bold and the playing almost flawless.
Viola’s videos, three acts of slow-motion stories and images,
ran parallel to the performance but seldom seemed to have a great
deal to do with the opera. The vast screen took up four-fifths
of the stage, leaving the black-clad singers a narrow strip below
in which to try to wrest audience attention away from the movie
above. They fought a losing battle. It was impossible to ignore
Viola’s art-works, which will be better suited to the art
galleries where they are eventually to be displayed.
Viola’s version of Tristan und Isolde involved
several of the same characters as the opera, played by actors
and stunt doubles, along with plenty of fire and water, the rising
and setting sun, the moon and various shots of nature. Throughout
the first act, the screen was split vertically, showing a separate
Tristan and Isolde going through identical purification rituals
involving stripping and washing. Oddly, they stripped completely
naked, only to complete their ablutions in loin-cloths. Their
early and patently unsuccessful attempts to drown themselves in
shallow bowls of water worked out better in the last act, where
they fell into a swimming-pool and dissolved like soluble vitamin
In fact much of Viola’s imagery was beautifully made and
strikingly strong, but at all times it distracted from the music,
rather than adding to it. No attempt was made to bring the singers
into any kind of relationship with the projections. Inevitably,
it felt like listening to a recording of the opera while watching
the television with the sound off.
It is hard to imagine what director Peter Sellars could have done
to improve the situation. In the end he did very little at all,
leaving the singers to wave their arms, stand, sit, or lie in
a series of stock gestures that deserved, at best, the title of
In an interview with the Financial Times just before
the premiere, Bill Viola said that he would not mind if audience
members simply shut their eyes throughout the performance. This
is an excellent idea. But it isn’t necessarily why we go
to the opera.
© Reproduced with permission of both the author and The
Opera Critic, 2005