by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, May 30, 2005.
It was in Paris that the liquid revolution of “Tristan und Isolde” first entered the bloodstream of the world. Wagner conducted the Prelude to the opera at three concerts in 1860, baffling most of the audience with his art of endless melody, his chords of longing that never resolve. But the bohemians of Paris fell into a trance—at one of these concerts, Baudelaire experienced “love unbridled, immense, chaotic, raised to the level of a counter-religion, a Satanic religion”—and the phenomenon of Wagnerism began. Shock effects of the mass-market or avant-garde variety are now so routine that we no longer know what it’s like to go slowly, majestically, and irreversibly over the edge. Leave it to the director Peter Sellars to make “Tristan” mind-bending once again. His production of the opera, created in collaboration with the video artist Bill Viola, was first seen last fall, in semi-staged form, at Disney Hall, in Los Angeles, and the definitive version opened last month at the Opéra Bastille, in Paris. I saw the last performance of the Paris run, and came away in something like the state of dazed bliss that Baudelaire described.
The dominant presence in this Southern California “Tristan” is Viola, whose images play for almost the entire duration of the opera, on a screen behind the singers. The artist has in common with Wagner a disdain for the rhythms of daily life: in his work, events often happen in slow motion, so that they acquire an atmosphere of sacred ritual. Much of the first act of the “Tristan” video is taken up by footage of a man and a woman walking toward the camera, removing their clothes, and washing themselves at a fountain. The compositions have a glowing clarity, like Renaissance frescoes. The faces are devoid of obvious emotion, yet are focussed by meditative feeling. There are few direct traces of the medieval legend on which Wagner based the opera: no ship on which Tristan brings Isolde to King Mark, her appointed husband; no garden where the lovers conduct their secret tryst; no castle where Tristan suffers and dies. Yet, on another level, the film is obsessively faithful to the human and natural elements that Wagner obsessively invokes—faces, eyes, hair, bodies, air, fire, earth, water.
Water above all: this production may be remembered as the “Tristan” that goes beneath the waves. Wagner’s libretto is soaked in water from start to finish; Act I begins with a sailor hailing the ocean, and Act III ends with Isolde preparing “to drown, to sink—unconscious—highest bliss!” Viola, likewise, dwells at length on the sensation of immersion. One visually astounding moment occurs after Tristan and Isolde imbibe the love potion, in Act I. For several minutes, the screen is featureless except for two tiny human figures, intertwined and gesturing. Then the bodies fill the screen, and the screen seems to bend and bubble with them. It turns out that we have been watching from the bottom of a pool of water as the couple dive in. The plunge coincides with a crucial moment in the score—the moment when the arching phrases of the Prelude are heard again, setting in motion the first great love duet.
Indelible images appear throughout: Tristan walks through a wall of fire, and afterward embers glow on his shirt like stars; Isolde lights a vast array of candles, one by one; the sun rises in real time through the branches of a solitary tree; the dead Tristan is raised in the air by a swell of water. And there are many other stunning congruences of sight and sound. The sunrise sequence unfolds during King Mark’s lament for Tristan’s betrayal, and the sun first glimmers over the horizon when the English horn lingers dejectedly on the note A. (At each performance, an editor adjusts the pace of the video in accordance with the tempos of the night.)
Some operagoers in Paris complained that Viola’s work distracted from the efforts of the singers and players. I didn’t have that problem, although it took me a quarter hour or two to grow accustomed to the overlapping of onscreen and onstage action. Because the images move so slowly, they don’t impose a competing montage rhythm. Instead, they are subsumed by the flow of Wagner’s music. I found myself listening with heightened alertness, as if the film were bringing Wagner into sharper focus. The images seemed to arise from the subconscious of the score, from the mysterious nexus where words become notes. After all, there can be no better metaphor for the experience of listening to Wagner than a plunge into deep blue water.
Sellars achieved the remarkable feat of erasing his own presence. The long-reigning activist director has not lost his power to confound; in a recent Carnegie Hall staging of György Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments,” he induced Dawn Upshaw to apply a prop steam iron to her face. But there was nothing outré in the “Tristan” production. Sets were minimal, the stage action incisive and straightforward. Only once did Sellars dramatically intervene: at the end of Act I, when Tristan and Isolde break out of their first duet to land on the hostile ground of Cornwall, the houselights went up, cruelly dispelling the magic of the love-potion scene, and King Mark was discovered standing in the middle of the orchestra seats, silently staring up at the lovers. That bone-chilling apparition not only forecast the eventual tragedy but also had the effect of putting the film in its place: live actors asserted their flesh-and-blood presence. The characters in the video seemed to have a sadness to them, as if they knew that they were trapped in a digital world, whereas the singers exulted in their freedom.
The leads were Waltraud Meier and Ben Heppner, both in great voice. Meier’s Isolde is a familiar quantity, but still unpredictable; her cutting accents, her way of flaring the end of the phrase, her precise but spontaneous-seeming stage gestures convey every hairpin turn of emotion. Heppner has emerged from a rocky patch with his voice in better shape than ever. A couple of years ago, listening to him was an anxious experience: you cringed in expectation that his gorgeous legato would run aground on a cracked note, which it periodically did. Now the voice seems solid to its roots, and Heppner has the confidence to take the risks that make for a raw, hair-raising Act III. Yvonne Naef, as Brangäne, held her own against Meier with a bold, deep mezzo tone. The weak link in the cast was Franz-Josef Selig, an effortful, leathery King Mark.
Esa-Pekka Salonen led the pioneering performances of the Sellars-Viola “Tristan” in Los Angeles last fall, and he travelled with the production to Paris. He offered a hugely impressive interpretation of a score on which almost every great conductor of the past century has made his mark. Already in the Prelude, you had a sense of a canny master plan, with crescendos plotted like parabolas of expanding size. Not unexpectedly, this contemporary-minded conductor made much of the work’s sharper edges: he had the violins lean on a passing note in the Act III prelude, highlighting a brief semitone clash. There was a startling sonority in the scene of Tristan’s death: the wind and brass choirs were eerily glassy and smooth, almost electronic in timbre. For the most part, though, this was an authentically Romantic reading, not a revisionist one. True to the atmosphere of the production, it had a surging and ebbing natural rhythm.
The Paris Opéra is now under the direction of Gerard Mortier, who led the Salzburg Festival from 1991 to 2001. Much of what Mortier did in Salzburg has gone down in the annals of pseudo-transgressive opera direction; his Paris regime will undoubtedly bring more of the same. But he also knows real talent when he sees it, and he is a longtime supporter of Sellars’s ventures. His programming for next season knocks sidewise that of any opera house in America: a return of this “Tristan,” under Valery Gergiev; a revival of Hindemith’s Weimar Republic shocker “Cardillac”; a general repertory running from the Baroque to the avant-garde; and, most important, the world première of Kaija Saariaho’s opera “Adriana Mater.” Perhaps Paris audiences, which ceased to be surprised sometime between Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” of 1913, and George Antheil’s airplane-propeller concert, of 1926, will teach Mortier the futility of inciting the bourgeoisie. Better to humble them with transcendence, as this “Tristan” does.
I can think of maybe fifty works that should have been introduced into the Metropolitan Opera repertory in advance of Franco Alfano’s 1936 mediocrity “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which just had three performances at the house. Start with Strauss’s “Daphne,” Nielsen’s “Maskarade,” Britten’s “Gloriana,” and Messiaen’s “Saint Francis.” Why is the Met wasting its time on a lesser work by a lesser composer who is best known to operagoers for having made a garish mess of the ending of Puccini’s unfinished “Turandot”? Because Plácido Domingo likes the piece, and Domingo is one of the few singers who can still sell out the house. The Met has fulfilled the tenor’s whim with a classy show. Francesca Zambello directed the production, in picture-postcard rather than provocative mode. Sondra Radvanovsky, a new Met star with an unforced, luminous, richly expressive soprano voice, sang opposite the inexhaustible Domingo. Marco Armiliato conducted enthusiastically. But no amount of fabulosity can redeem the opera itself, which must have seemed like a stopgap even at its première.
Alfano hardly lacked talent. He wrote expertly for the voice; he had an ear for quirky tonal harmony; his orchestration glitters like the best of Nelson Riddle. An Italian who longed to be French, he copied Debussy, Ravel, and Les Six more than he did Puccini. There are subtle, wry, poignant moments scattered through his adaptation of “Cyrano,” including a very haunting “Pelléas”-like duet for the hero and Roxane at the end. But whenever Alfano feels a climax approaching he goes in for crude, gassy, Technicolor sounds, of the sort that make his completion of “Turandot” so intolerable. It’s as if he didn’t trust his finer instincts to make an impression. The contrast with the man who wrote “Tristan” could not be more extreme.