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.