Some thoughts on the Sellars/Viola Tristan about to open on Tuesday at the Mothership. This is based on the two rehearsals I sat in on: one in the orchestra pit, the other the dress rehearsal last night. I’m working on an article for Opera Canada about the COC Orchestra, therefore the visits.
— To sit in the orchestra pit while the orchestra is playing is an unparalleled musical experience. I was planted in the back, between Second Violins and Violas, which is of course more recommended than sitting next to the First Violins. A whole new world of shades and forms in the work opens when you follow the score from that position. The orchestra (dir. Johannes Debus) is in great shape and teasing the hell out of every nuance in the score.
— Melanie Diener is a very good Isolde. All the talk seems to be around Ben Heppner — how great he’s doing, what form he’s in, that he sounds as good as ever — but a good Isolde is equally tough to stumble upon. The German soprano debuts the role, and she is remarkable.
— King Marke of Cornwall (Franz-Josef Selig) and Kurwenal (Alan Held) don’t get better than this.
— Bill Viola’s videos are really meaningful and work well except in one regard. This opera isn’t about a guy and a girl who fall in love eccetera. It’s about a somebody and another somebody who fall in love — the work allows for plenty cross-gender and non-gender and trans-gender identification. Any of us, man or woman, can be at any point Tristan or Isolde (or Marke, or Brangaene, etc). Hell, Auden even joked it must be about two lesbians because of the mad degree of merging between the principals. But what Viola and Sellars did was they doubled the couple by putting another man-woman couple in the videos, who do parallel things to the couple on stage, in that the slowed-down, Bill Viola-time of which a lot has been written. This unfortunately anchors the work permanently on the very straight side. Some of the videos of the couple running into the splashing sea will even bring to mind other, more stereotypical media images of the couple happiness that you don’t want seeing in the opera. There are many other video segments that get the tone just right, so there’s some consolation in that. The final fall of the woman figure from a raging fire into the water is as good an exegesis of the Liebestod as any likely to emerge.
— I don’t need to say Go, see it, because Toronto obviously is gonna: the entire run is almost sold out days before the opening night.
Video stills by Bill Viola, from the Opéra national de Paris production of Tristan und Isolde. Photo: Kira Perov © 2005