Tristan und Isolde

Date: April 8, 2014
Location: Opéra Bastille, Paris.

Tristan: Robert Dean Smith
Isolde: Violeta Urmana
Sailor’s Voice: Pavol Breslik
Brangäne: Janina Baechle
Kurwenal: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Melot: Raimund Nolte
King Marke: Franz-Josef Selig
Shepherd: Pavol Breslik
Steerman: Piotr Kumon

Opéra national de Paris
Philippe Jordan, conductor
Peter Sellars, production

This Peter Sellars production, famous for its minimalist direction and extensive use of video projections, premiered in 2005 at the Opera under Gerard Mortier, then general director of the Opera. A champion of bold new works, Mortier exemplified a new generation of art administrators who sought to bring classical opera up-to-date with the times, whether in its embrace of new technology or adoption of multimedia as a narrative or coloring device. It was thus appropriate that, before the first note was played, the Opera allowed a minute of silence to pay tribute to Mortier, who passed away exactly a month ago.

This production does not please everyone but, perhaps by brutal force of visual identity, makes staunch impressions. Projected on a scrim at the back of the stage, Bill Viola’s video imagery materialized repetitively and at a slow pace. In Act I, during the scene retelling Tristan’s history and Morold’s fate, video projections showed two actors, in two tiles of slow motion video, doing a variety of mundane activities: undressing themselves, washing hands, and head-dipping into a basin of water. Taken alone, the video subjects could not look more prosaic – perhaps intently – so as to avoid taking unnecessary attention away from the main stage. It soon became clear that the mundane repetitions were ritualistic, perhaps alluding to the formality of paraphrasing the Cornwallian history before Tristan and Isolde could find each other’s love. By juxtaposing daily routine tasks closely with the later Acts’ metaphysical exploration of love and death, the video also seemed to serve as a contrasting harbinger of what was to come.

Peter Sellars’ stage was simple but efficacious: a dark box in the middle of the stage was used to signify the ship with which Tristan brought Isolde to King Marke. That same dark box doubled as Tristan’s death bed. In the beginning of Act II, Tristan and Isolde each stood inside a square of white lights beamed down from above. The light over Tristan would soon extinguish, and he would walk towards Isolde. Choreographed to perfection, Tristan would step into Isolde’s square just as the music leading to their monumental duet, “So Sterben wir”, began. Sellars’ directorial treatment here was exemplary: simple stage movements looked elegant, drove tension and focus towards the subject, and placed emphasis squarely at, no pun intended, the center of the vocal storyline.

To be sure, neither Robert Dean Smith nor Violeta Urmana could be labeled as gifted stage actors. With Sellars’ minimalist designs and direction, they often looked aimless and physically out of place. But that was not to say they had no stage presence, which they were able to muster through the force of their dramatic voice. After all, good Tristan und Isolde calls for tonal color and exceptional endurance, and here the duo offered a whole lot, and then some. Urmana’s upper notes emerged with care and clarity, while her middle registers, of which there were plenty in Isolde, shimmered with supple richness and intensity. Her “Als für ein fremdes Land” was, like a tamed horse cantering in free pastures, absolutely joyful to listen to. Her Liebestod was heart-achingly moving. One may not find a scintillating spectacle in Smith’s voice, but he sang with refined subtlety and seasoned restraint. Crucially, Smith paced himself well enough that his physical output was, like a piece of well-oiled machinery, consistent and elegant throughout, without sounding tired or labored deep into Act III. Jochen Schmeckenbecher, as Kurwenal, sang fearlessly. Franz-Josef Selig, as Marke, sang with a force of destiny. Piotr Kumon, as Steerman, belted jubilantly from one of the upper-level boxes, while choruses in Act I filled the house with resolute, almost ecclesiastical power just as the lights in the hall slowly illuminated, only to turn off simultaneously at the last note of the Act. If Wagnerian music is meant to build towards consummate moment of epic proportions, this instance is certainly it.

Under Philippe Jordan, ensembleship with fine legato phrasings took precedence over mastery of individual lines. The Opera’s orchestra sounded mellow, and mellower than one would typically find in a German orchestra. Nothing really stood out with a dazzle, but the entirety spoke as a coherent whole well worthy of Wagner.

Tristan und Isolde, at Paris Opera. Photo credit: Paris Opera.

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La Sylphide

Date: March 30, 2014
Company: Romanian National Ballet
Choreography: Johan Kobborg, after August Bournonville
Location: Bucharest National Opera House, Bucharest.

Choreography by Johan Kobborg, after August Bournonville

Romanian National Ballet

Romanian National Opera (orchestra)
Ciprian Teodoraşcu (conductor)

When Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru signed on to be director of Romanian National Ballet, there was little doubt that the talents of Johan Kobborg would soon follow. The pair has enlivened the stage of Covent Garden for many years, before they controversially “retired” together from the Royal Ballet last year. The move allowed the pair more freedom to experiment and pursue guest gigs elsewhere. It was therefore soon after Cojocaru decided to offer her services to her homeland’s top company, Kobborg would follow. The Dane’s first project in the Romanian capital was a revival of La Sylphide, one of the oldest surviving romantic ballets in the entire repertoire and one that the pair was famously known for. The project was based on the 19th century work of Kobborg’s compatriot, balletmaster August Bournonville for the Royal Danish Ballet. Kobborg left the work untouched but added an Act I pas de deux for James and Effie which, by placing more dramatic importance on James and his psyche, seemed to suggest that the whole concept of the sylph was merely his own dreamy concoction. When this project premiered last December, Cojocaru caused a sensation in Bucharest by guest-starring. Kobborg also made news when it was announced after the prima that he agreed to sign on as co-director of the company. In this spring evening, company dancers took the stage, with principal Dawid Trzensimiech as James and Rin Okuno, in her role debut, as the sylph. Trzensimiech, solid the entire evening, showed why the Royal Ballet’s loss was the Romanian company’s gain. (Trzensimiech too defected from Covent Garden late last year.) His fouetté sauté always landed with crisp acuity, while he moved about on stage with brisk fluidity. Okuno demonstrated high arches and danced like an airy origami wind mill. Her point foot felt at times overly pushed forward, but if her intention was to be faithful to the point development of the 19th century, she was indeed a performing genius. The production, set appropriately in the Scottish highlands, had everything one would expect from La Sylphide: a chimney in Act 1 where the sylph actually disappeared before James and Gurn were able to find her; some stage trickery that allowed the sylph to disappear from the chair to embarrass Gurn and reassure Effie (danced by Diana Tudor); and a sylph that actually flew across (using wires!) the stage just as James collapsed to the ground, knowing that he has lost both Effie and the sylph. The orchestra was not what one would consider world-class, but they did their duties by going through Herman Severin Løvenskiold’s music from start to finish with no serious objection.

La Sylphide in Bucharest.

La Sylphide in Bucharest.