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Tristan und Isolde
Canadian Opera Company
Diener and Heppner, Isolde and Tristan at COC
© Michael Cooper 2013
Canadian Opera Company's new production of Tristan und Isolde (seen Jan. 29), the company's first in twenty-five years, was a feast of glorious music-making. The production, by director Peter Sellars — based on his 2005 production for the Paris Opera — did little to enhance one's enjoyment of the opera but also did little to undermine it. This Tristan's primary feature was a film by video artist Bill Viola that runs as a stage-width backdrop for the entire length of the opera. Theoretically, Viola's film provides the active visual component for a modern-day version of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk. Despite Viola's claim about combining "Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Tantra," his film mostly supplied the black-clad stage with the background scenery referred to in Wagner's libretto.
At two points, however, the film was actively distracting, and both involved its use of actors representing the titular couple. During Isolde's long narrative and curse in Act I, Viola staged an extended scene of his filmic couple undergoing ritual purification. Not only was it disconcerting to see the actors onscreen dwarf the singers onstage, but the ceremony had absolutely nothing to do with Isolde's narrative. The submissive purification Viola portrayed clashed completely with Isolde's outpouring of anger. The second instance occurred during the conclusion, in which Viola envisioned the slain Tristan lying on a bier at the bottom of the sea. During the "Liebestod," Tristan's body somehow effervesced to the surface in an increasing rush of bubbles. The image reversed Isolde's imagery of drowning and sinking ("ertrinken, versinken").
Sellars's most successful strategy was his most purely theatrical one of involving the entire auditorium in the action. For the arrival of Tristan's ship in Cornwall, the house lights rose, while spotlights cast all about the interior of the hall, finally picking out the chorus and trumpets — perched on the verge of the uppermost balcony — as King Marke and Melot walked down the house-right aisle to greet the stage-as-ship. In Act II, during the hunting sequence, Sellars placed the horns in the boxes on opposite sides of the second balcony to locate us in the midst of the action. One only wished that this kind of theatricality, rather than the use of film, had characterized the whole production.
Luckily, the singing of the principals was so riveting that one naturally tended to focus on their faces rather than the film. For Torontonians, this production provided their first-ever chance to see Canadian tenor Ben Heppner sing Tristan on a Canadian stage. He was in fine form, his voice enormous, ringing and heroic, his technique secure and his performance infused with passion. His account of "Muss ich dich so versteh'n, du alte, ernste Weise," ending in Tristan's delirium, was heartbreaking. German soprano Melanie Diener was an ideal Isolde. She has a full, rich, liquid tone without a trace of harshness, and she commands impressive lung-power. Sellars directed her to sing the "Liebestod" not as if Isolde were willing herself to die but rather as an incantation. Within that stricture her Isolde convincingly transformed herself from grieving lover to the high priestess of Tristan's obsequies, raising her arms in exultation at the end rather than appearing to die.
German bass Franz-Josef Selig made King Marke the most sympathetic of the characters. He has a gorgeous, velvety voice, teeming with color and richness. Construing Marke's words in a modern way, Sellars decided that King Marke is himself in love with Tristan. Marke's Act II narrative, "Mir dies? Dies, Tristan, mir?" became the most moving and human moment in the opera in expressing love on a completely personal level, in contrast to the exalted, absolutist stance of the two lovers.
Daveda Karanas successfully conveyed Brangäne's concern for her mistress's life to the point of disobedience, but her voice, with its strong vibrato, often took on an unpleasant metallic tone. American bass-baritone Alan Held was a strong yet sensitive Kurwenal, his skillful acting and resonant voice capturing the character's deep loyalty to his master.
The audience justifiably reserved its greatest acclaim for the COC Orchestra and Johannes Debus, who was conducting his first Tristan, in place of an ailing Jiři Bělohlávek. Debus began the overture too cautiously, but as soon as the singing began, he propelled the orchestra into playing of extraordinary unanimity and depth. It was an unforgettable triumph for Debus and the players, who related the score forward to the twentieth century, reveling in Wagner's use of dissonance, chromaticism and harmonic suspension, with the result that it shone with amazing freshness and vitality.
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