Heppner, Sellars & Viola: Tristan in Toronto

It’s really good. That’s all you need to know.  The Canadian Opera Company’s imported production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (originally presented in Paris in 2005), directed by Peter Sellars with video by Bill Viola is quite simply unforgettable.   And while Sellars & Viola deserve attention—and I shall address their work in a moment—for me the chief story revolves around Ben Heppner.

Tenor Ben Heppner, seen here performing in 2005. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)

Start with the fact that Heppner –a Canadian who was with the COC early in his career—has never sung a major Wagner role in Toronto even though Heppner was among the best Tristans in the world if not the best.  And if that weren’t enough to make the occasion special, Heppner had vocal troubles awhile ago.  One could be excused for wondering: what was Heppner going to sound like?  Yes this was a dress rehearsal, a time when singers are excused for giving less than 100%.

Heppner threw me a curve with the best live Tristan I have ever heard, both vocally & dramatically, a performance of spectacular singing, heart-breaking vulnerability & rock-solid conviction.  While I heard in the COC announcement earlier this week that Heppner’s coming back next season to sing the role of Peter Grimes, tonight I realize that this is truly cause for celebration.  Heppner’s voice sounded wonderful, and I never realized what a great actor he could be.

Let’s talk about Sellars, Viola and the COC production.

Thumbnail: Video still by Bill Viola, from the Opéra national de Paris production of Tristan und Isolde. Photo: Kira Perov © 2005

Modern opera productions can be a scary prospect, particularly if you’re a fundamentalist: one who demands that the work be staged as written.  Sellars & Viola offer something wonderfully original that’s not a violation of the text, because for almost the entire work, they are complementing rather than challenging or over-writing the work as written.  Extreme cases of radical interpretations sometimes rebel against the text, refusing to stage the work as written: but there’s no cause for alarm with Sellars & Viola.

Viola’s video functions as a kind of gloss, a commentary upon the singing & acting downstage from the video screen.  We get a very simple presentation of the action from the principals, accompanied by the extra layer supplied by the video.  Viola’s images seem to supply the deep structure, the symbolic under-pinnings of the action being presented.  And so, for example, while Tristan and Isolde engage in an intense conversation in the last part of the first act (but before any potions have been consumed), and suddenly we hear the chorus, prompting Tristan to say “wo sind wir” (or “where are we?”), the visual, which had shown two faces partly immersed in water, suddenly emerge from the water.  It’s visceral to watch, and an indirect way of expressing what’s happening, but it’s one of several instances where we’re living with the tension between a body above or below the surface of water.  Viola’s images are always striking and sometimes stunningly beautiful, but never upstaging the performers.

If you’re already a lover of this opera, as I am, then this production is a treat.  Viola’s images are often very open and abstract, gently suggesting symbols without precise assignment of meanings.  So for example at one point we are watching an ocean with waves during the first scene.  It might be a medieval ocean: until partway through Isolde’s narrative we see a modern looking boat with lights on the surface of those waves.  Is this problematic? I like it, because this is my 21st century sea, not some feeble Hollywood image of the past.  But when music is this powerful, I don’t want something overly specific.  Some parts of the video worked better than others for me.

Sellars has some interesting ideas.  I can’t help thinking that maybe there’s a cinematic influence at work.  Often characters get insanely close to one another, at least by operatic standards.  When King Marke laments to Tristan, or Tristan addresses Melot near the end of Act II they stand at a very intimate distance.  A camera close-up is suggested by this intense configuration even though i was sitting some distance away.

Another effect that leads me to use the word “cinematic” even if it’s likely not the root cause is Sellars deployment of the various diegetic performances (heard within the sound-world of the characters) inside the opera house.  These include the sailor’s song at the opening, the shepherd’s tune in Act III, the horns in Act II.  As well, Sellars has a prominent diegetic effect at the end of Act I, where the brass for King Marke’s arrival is all assembled inside the theatre, making the end of the act quite hair-raising.  I was staring through tears for the last 3 minutes of the act, completely unprepared for the freshness of the interpretation,complete with house-lights up.

Johannes Debus deserves credit for a brave reading of Wagner’s score.  The COC Orchestra sounded flawless throughout, particularly in all the climactic passages, sterling in all the famous music, big & powerful when they had to be.  The famous Prelude was given a taut & urgent reading. The tempi were fast for the most part, which as far as I understand is authentic; slower tempi are a 20th century affectation that hopefully is no longer considered ideal.

For a dress-rehearsal there was a great deal of good singing, from Melanie Diener as Isolde, Alan Held’s Kurwenal, the youthful Brangäne of Daveda Karanas and particularly the King Marke of Franz-Josef Selig, who was vocally & dramatically as powerful as Heppner in a smaller role.  If you have the opportunity you must see this.

The COC production of Tristan und Isolde opens Jan 29th, running until Feb 23rd at the Four Seasons Centre.

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2 Responses to Heppner, Sellars & Viola: Tristan in Toronto

  1. Jean says:

    I saw the premiere of this work by Sellars, etc in LA as a concert version many years ago. I found the videos distracting. For those who had to follow titles, there must have been a lot of multi-tasking. I am eager to re-visit the production now as a staged version. But most importantly, if it is well sung and well played, that is all I ask. Jean

  2. barczablog says:

    Hi Jean, thanks for your comments. Me? i can’t be objective. I know Tristan so well i don’t really look at the titles, and having seen many odd productions (for instance, giggling at John Treleaven channeling of Prince Valiant in that unfortunate remount of Hockney’s production at LA Opera…bad use of tromp l’oeil i am afraid), i am always eager to meet the producers half-way. Compared to such productions (that purport to be “faithful”) or those that are more adventurous this one is painless.

    There was a discussion on OPERA-L recently about titles being a distraction. I think in the end there are always questions of competency. Some people (as Charlie Handelman said) show up knowing the work, having done their home-work; arguably, a new approach (whether with video, surtitles or dancing girls) always requires us to open our minds to see what’s being done, and possibly requires homework or some kind of effort. But if we wanted he easy path we wouldnt be watching /hearing Wagner, would we…? That’s why they invented Glee & movie musicals.

    Although i must say, i like(d) Glee & love (some) movie musicals.

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