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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


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 and weighty.

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 tablets.

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 “semi-staging”.

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.


Stefan Lühle


© Reproduced with permission of both the author and The Opera Critic, 2005



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