Tristan und Isolde

Visual and Sonic Glories

January 20, 2023By Nick HammondMusic
Peter Selllar’s production of Tristan und Isolde at the Opéra National de Paris, with backdrop by Bill Viola. © Elisa Haberer/Opéra national de Paris
Peter Sellar’s production of Tristan und Isolde at the Opéra National de Paris, with backdrop by Bill Viola. © Elisa Haberer/Opéra national de Paris

The famous Paris Opera production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by director Peter Sellars, in collaboration with video artist Bill Viola, makes another welcome return to the Bastille. There is a reason why this production has remained in the company’s repertoire since 2005: it gives stunning visual life to a work that, for all its musical glories, can sometimes be extremely static. By providing huge, changing backdrops dominated by two figures representing the title characters (often submerged in water), Viola’s video installation provides a movingly poetic commentary on what is being sung about onstage.

For those who do not know the opera and for spectators like me who have seen this production on a number of its reiterations, there is another compelling reason to see (or rather, listen to) it: conductor Gustavo Dudamel is making his second major appearance as music director of the Paris Opera. After the overly safe production of Puccini’s Tosca, at which he made his somewhat underwhelming debut, Tristan represents a significantly greater musical challenge for Dudamel. For the most part, he succeeds magnificently. From the famous Prelude (played at a swift but tautly controlled pace) onward, Dudamel elicits a performance of enormous energy and sumptuous musical tone from the orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris. While the early bars of the Prelude to Act III were played rather too scrappily on opening night, the enormous orchestral forces under his direction rarely overwhelmed the singers.

It should not be forgotten that Sellars (who was present at the first performance of this new run) exploits not only the visual but also the sonic potential of the Bastille theater. Moments like the closing scene of Act I, during which singers, chorus members and orchestral musicians perform from all angles and heights of the auditorium, are thrillingly realized here.

And what of the singers? American-born, Paris-based soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams makes her debut in the hugely taxing role of Isolde. Her voice is not conventionally beautiful – there is an asperity to its tone that is both disconcerting and thrillingly unforgettable – but she modulates it to suit her character’s changing responses. In Act I, for example, the ugliness of the singing that communicates both her fury at being shipped from Ireland to Cornwall to become King Mark’s wife, and her anger at the seeming indifference of Tristan, who has been given the task of accompanying her on her journey, transforms into a pure tone of breathless beauty as she and Tristan drink the love potion that will seal their eventual fate. Her rendition of the famous Liebestod that ends the opera was to my mind both distinctive and perfectly judged, even though the smattering of boos, mingled with much more dominant cheers, that greeted her at her final curtain call showed that her singing divided opinion.

Swedish tenor Michael Weinius has an initially less distinctive but dependable voice as Tristan. Paradoxically, his vocal quality really comes to life when, after being mortally wounded by the evil Melot (played with relish by Neal Thompson) and taken to his homeland, he anxiously awaits Isolde’s arrival. While Eric Owens as King Mark is neither as touching nor as noble as other performers I have heard in the role, he sings with dignity and authority.

It is interesting that Sellars brings out the homoerotic dimension of Mark’s love for Tristan (they even kiss each other on the lips after Mark has discovered Tristan’s betrayal of him); such a reading certainly corresponds to the way their relationship is portrayed in a number of the medieval sources used by Wagner. Mark seems much less concerned with his new wife’s infidelity than with Tristan’s betrayal.

Two other crucial roles in the opera are the respective attendants to the title characters. The wonderfully named Okka von der Dammerau as Brangäne and Ryan Speedo Green as Kurwenal both sing and act with great conviction, with the former particularly effective in Act II when, placed in the upper reaches of the auditorium, she keeps watch for the two lovers, and the latter showing a touching transformation from a somewhat boorish henchman in Act I to a faithful companion and friend to Tristan in Act III.

For all the visual wonders of this production, one is left with Wagner’s extraordinary music, first performed as early as 1865 but already straining at the limits of tonality (just listen to the recurring theme of the shepherd’s pipe at the beginning of Act III to get an idea of how modern Wagner’s musical language sounds). Dudamel and the Paris Opera orchestra deliver that music with aplomb.

Nick Hammond’s latest book, The Powers of Sound and Song in Early Modern Paris, is available in paperback and as an e-book here and from online vendors.


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