“Tristan” at the Paris Opéra


Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner

Esa-Pekka Salonen / Peter Sellars / Bill Viola (video)
Waltraud Meier / Ben Heppner / Yvonne Naef / Franz-Josef Selig (Marke)

Paris Opéra Bastille
le 20 avril 2005

Tristan at the Bastille

an account by KEN QUANDT

Isolde sends Brangäne to request that Tristan visit her before the boat lands. He sends back the message that he must stay at the helm to guide the boat to shore. In a traditionally concrete presentation of the action Tristan must therefore be offstage and inaccessible to Isolde, until he lands the boat. While Isolde then tells her story to Brangäne we might wonder whether Tristan’s refusal was an evasion, but since he is offstage we cannot see him, and so we are left to wonder, in the abstract.

Peter Sellars’s new mise en scène at the Bastille has contrived, in this case and in many others, to make the abstract concrete. Not only do we see Tristan’s reaction to Isolde’s tale; even more, Tristan is depicted as hearing it. For he is also on the stage, in a square area of his own placed symmetrically stage right to Isolde and Brangäne’s square, stage left. The squares are created by nothing but light. Behind them at the back of this shallow stage rises a huge screen on which we see a gorgeous silent video in black and white showing a stormy sea lashing at a rocky shore.

With all this Sellars is asking us to risk adjusting the degree to which we suspend our disbelief; and if we will take the risk he will repay our trouble with a presentation of this notoriously abstract opera that is rich in new insights, spectacle, and perspicuous fulfillment.

What is abstract about Tristan und Isolde is of course that “nothing happens.” The action consists of feelings shifting within the characters. Wagner’s original conception entertained a radical deficit of visuals and placed a radically heavy burden on his audience to feel what the characters feel without being given much to go on. The characters after all are absorbed with each other. Wagner of course sought to carry all this meaning with his music, a tour de force that perhaps he alone even up to this day could pull off.

Modern audiences are less and less willing to be given so little and to be called upon for so much. Yet even the best audience — even a Wagner audience — is willing to be given more, and will always tolerate a certain fascination with gratuitous spectacle.

The Sellars mise en scène hazards to give more, and constantly runs the risk of giving too much. This too much is of course the continuous silent video accompaniment of the action projected hugely behind the singers. A video is infinitely concrete: a photo is always a photo of something, and the truer the photo the more realism it imposes. Musical accompaniment on the other hand consists of sounds that are indeed the sounds of something, namely the sounds of oboes and strings. The difference is that the meaning of the music is not the oboe, but the oboe directs us to a meaning that we find within. Conversely, a video accompaniment achieves concreteness at the risk of being uninterpretably literal.

At some points during the piece the video, produced by Bill Viola, serves as a backdrop to the action, as for instance the gorgeous night forest scene accompanying the opening of Act Two when Isolde is waiting for Tristan to arrive during Marke’s night hunt, or at the end of this act the gradual sunrise after the night of love, to accompany Marke’s long solo, or most magnificently as a brightly moonlit sky illuminating the lovers as they embrace below it during Brangäne’s long solo in the middle of the act.

Alternatively, at the very beginning, after the Prelude and a very slow rising curtain, the video introduces itself in a sentimentalist function, a stormy seascape with waves lashing the shore to accompany Isolde’s anxiety about arriving in Ireland and also perhaps Tristan’s anxiety at bringing her there. At the beginning of Act Three the video presents a phantasmagoria of Tristan’s failing consciousness as he reels from a desire for Isolde to arrive (depicted in shadow backlit by a wall of flames behind her) to a death dream with watery ebb and flow.

Finally, besides scene setting, sentimentalism, and phantasmagoria, the video is used almost to the point of distraction for a function we may call thematic. Most of the hour and a quarter of Act One is accompanied by a man and a woman first approaching us from a great distance and then undergoing a ritual bathing, stage by stage,all in paired symmetrical frames. Thematic also is the slow approach of the man of this pair, that takes place soon after the beginning of the Second Act, while Isolde awaits Tristan. The gradualness of these events seems to create time, time filled by the music; and seems to discover or invent a gorgeousness that the audience will continue to enjoy throughout the several hours that follow.

The video has so many functions that it evades being taken literally. The ideas that preoccupied Bill Viola, ideas that he has discussed in interviews about materiality and bodiliness and eastern mysticism, ideas that Wagnerians will find irrelevant and even impertinent, are likewise evaded by his own wordless and beautiful artform, thank God!

This multi functionality is also the secret behind Sellars’s minimal but very powerful staging. Tristan at the beginning of Act One is and is not on the stage with Isolde. He is framed on one side by an square area created by light and she on the other. Within her square area is also a platform that will serve as a bed for their love in Act Two and a bier for Tristan in Act Three. In Act One Tristan can hear Isolde’s complaints and responds with pained gestures. In the height of her anger she can even walk over into his space and recriminate him at his left shoulder. When she then tells Brangäne about taking care of Tantris, Tristan walks over to her space and lies on her platform so that she and Tristan can mime the scene with the sword and even his fateful look into her eyes during her song to Brangäne. King Marke ends his monologue in Act Two abject and prostrate in center stage, and there he stays, arrested in this position during Tristan’s narration about his mother’s death, until he is needed to stand and witness Melot’s murder of Tristan. Sellars manages the movements from Tristan’s space to Isolde’s by having the characters move in arrestingly perpendicular paths between. Brangäne remains onstage during the potion scene, but faces sideways (another perpendicular) and therefore can seem not to be present.

The minimal staging along with the full but only ancillary richness of the video leaves a small but very powerful interval to be filled with expressive gestures by the singers. And here I have finally reached my opportunity to praise Waltraud Meier, who portrays Isolde with a voice now strong, now sweet, vulnerable and inviolable. Such dignity and power I have not seen on the opera stage, this subtle eloquence of her body language, a language other leading dramatic sopranos are somatically unsuited to speak. The total effect brought Isolde into the visual realm with unparalleled force. Plato says that while all the forms are invisible the one closest to visibility is beauty. This Isolde was beautiful.

There is talk about Esa-Pekka Salonen that has nothing to do with his rendition of this piece. With the first bars of the Prelude, and in particular with the long pause between the opening phrase and its repetition, he announced to us what we long to hear at the beginning of every Wagner opera, that the conductor is ready to give the score all the time and sensitivity and largeness that it asks for. Talk about Salonen the modernist, the steely, the academic, and the mechanical is totally out of place. By the middle of the Prelude I noticed that my breathing rhythm had become the same as the rhythm of the phrasing, and noticed subsequently that it changed with it also. The man who faults Salonen for neglect of rubato must have slept through the cello accompanying Isolde’s “er sah mir in die Augen” in Act One.

Paris Director Gerard Mortier’s unveiling of this new experiment took place in two steps. Last December the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed the piece under Salonen at the Disney Center in Los Angeles, with the full video accompaniment, in a semi-staged version, over the course of three nights, one night per act. This concertante presentation with Clifton Forbis and Christine Brewer included the playing of other pieces as preludes each night (Berg’s Lyric Suite before Act One, Debussy’s Suite from Pelleas et Melisande before Act Two, and the absolutely astounding Cinq Reflets sur l’amour de loin, a suite from Saariaho’s young opera L’Amour de Loin. At the Disney the orchestra was in the central position, behind the singers and beneath the video, whereas at the Bastille the singers were on stage, with the video immediately behind and above them, and the orchestra invisible in the pit. The reviews of those performances gravitated toward questioning the relevance of the video.

We knew that Sellars and Mortier were somehow involved in this “Tristan Project,” but their hand in things was rather invisible in Los Angeles. Perhaps their plan all along was to pre-release the controversial element in Los Angeles, to take the hits from the press for adding this large video, and then to reveal the thing in its whole and final form in Paris with the indispensible addition of Waltraud Meier and with Sellars’s brilliantly simple staging as the coping stone.

The production is scheduled to return in Paris during the fall, under Valery Gergiev.