Reviewed by James Karas
The Canadian Opera Company has not touched Tristan und Isolde for a quarter of a century but it has more than made up for lost time with its current production. Directed by Peter Sellars and with Bill Viola’s visual design, it is a masterly production that will set a high standard for opera in Toronto.
Tristan und Isolde takes five hours to perform albeit with a couple of intermissions for the audience to catch its breath. Its musical and vocal grandeur and difficulties are legendary but its length and lack of overt action are equally well known. It is a static opera with enormous mythical complexities but all of them are internal. Not much happens on stage.
Sellars and Viola refuse to accept any suggestion that this is a static opera and they have come up with a brilliant idea: produce a complex video to be used as a backdrop to the entire opera.
The video and still pictures are no mere decoration like showing billowing waves or storms at sea on a screen. The video is seen throughout the performance and it gives a large number of scenes that illustrate (that is such a weak word) the psychological and emotional aspects of the characters and the situations.
There are videos and still pictures of the sea, waterfalls, the sun, the moon, paths in the forest, candles and many more. We see the young Tristan and Isolde and they undress in front of us until they are completely nude. We see them underwater and floating in the air. We are provided with a visual experience of the past as we witness the present. It is extraordinary.
All of these images appear while the singers are performing the opera. What we hear from the singers and see on the screen are clearly related but it would take a hefty tome to relate all the images to the music and singing. Some of the images such as those of fire indicating passion and death, the sun, the moon and the like are fairly obvious. Scenes of drowning and others are subject to many interpretations.
On an otherwise unadorned stage, we have the opera performed by the singers in almost recital fashion. I saw the production on February 8, 2013, with the alternate cast. Tristan was sung by tenor Michael Baba (rather than Ben Heppner) and Isolde was sung by Margaret Jane Wray instead of Melanie Diener.
Tristan und Isolde has vocal demands that would tax the stamina of most singers. It is the operatic equivalent of a Marathon or perhaps two Marathon runs and few can survive with any ease. Baba and Wray did superb work most of the time but there were occasions when they flagged in volume if nothing else. Most of the time they could be heard clearly but on occasion they came close to being overwhelmed by the orchestra.
Daveda Karanas as Brangäna was steady and very good but she ran into the same problem.
Bass-baritone Alan Held had no such issues as Kurwenal and gave a commanding performance. Bass Franz-Josef Selig gave perhaps the best vocal showing of the evening as King Marke. He has a big voice and was an outstanding presence in the relatively minor role.
Johannes Debus conducted the COC Orchestra in a marvelous performance.
The production was originally staged by the Opéra national de Paris in 2005 and it stands General Director Alexander Neef in good stead for bringing such an extraordinary production to Toronto.
Aside from Viola’s extraordinary artistic work, the rest of the production is mostly in static black and white. One of the small issues for me was that I was so engrossed in the video that I forgot to watch the singers on occasion. Perhaps that is the intention and they are allowed the luxury of singing in almost concert style while the video takes care of the audience’s eyes if not ears.
Even with some complaints about the singing, this is a production of the first order.
Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner opened on January 29 and will run in repertory until February 23, 2013 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca