Sellars market

At the intermissions of Tristan und Isolde Friday (dress rehearsal) there was madness in the air, a place rife with miscommunication.  Wagner himself said that good performances would make people mad (or crazy), so perhaps that was the problem.  A crappy production would have been safer, so maybe the COC should have a disclaimer above the door (“this production may impair your judgment, operation of heavy machinery not recommended”).  We’d been taken into a place of magic and fantasy, where drinks don’t poison you so much as open doors to other realms and dimensions.

Miscommunication is of course something central to Tristan und Isolde.  The story is built out of a series of them.  More fundamentally, however, this is a place of honour, which means that people often hold a great deal of their feelings in reserve.  In a traditional Tristan Isolde rails at the stoic knight in Act I, finally demanding he drink atonement because he’s doing the safe and politically correct thing.

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

Peter Sellars defies most of the usual logic in his production that’s come to Toronto after an earlier incarnation in Paris seven years ago.  With the use of elaborate video, Sellars changes the usual balance.  A conventional Tristan sees characters speak indirectly, often across great distances from opposite sides of the stage, before finally being compelled by a potion to be truthful.  It’s called a love potion but it could just as well be truth serum.

Sellars changes it up.  His characters sing Wagnerian phrases from intimate distance. Simply from the point of view of intensity it’s almost hazardous, imagining Ben Heppner taking Franz-Josef’s heart-break from inches away, right into his face.

While Tristan is often spoken of as an opera about love, I think it’s a misnomer.  Wagner was obsessed with Schopenhauer, and in this opera uses the medieval legend about the lovers to create a parable about the Buddhist ideas he was discovering at this time. Chief among the tenets of this philosophy is the futility of desire, that we are to overcome desire, and that death is our release.  The opera uses love as a pathway to enlightenment for both of the lovers.

Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer

Bill Viola’s video seems very well attuned to Schopenhauer.  While Wagner’s music captures the Dionysian intoxication of desire, Viola gives us the deeper structure, the quest of each for the other.

While I would wish it were somehow recorded in a DVD I don’t think it can be properly captured, given that there’s so much to look at.  The eye sometimes doesn’t know where to go, which text (music, singing, words, or visual images) to follow.  It’s delightfully challenging.

And I must see it again.

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6 Responses to Sellars market

  1. Intrigued by your commentary on this production. Will finally see it on Dec. 2! Tristan (and most Wagner) does seem to incite a frenzy in audiences unlike anything I’ve experienced for other composers (like a fever!). I’m interested in your comments regarding the physical closeness you’ve noted between singers in this staging. Funny, as of the few comments I’ve heard thus far, one or two remarked on how distant the singers are (apparently in act 3). Regardless, I’m very excited about hearing this piece for the first time, live!

  2. barczablog says:

    It’s true that when Kurwenal sings to the unconscious Tristan (“lebst du noch… hast du der fluch entfurht”?) counter-intuitively Sellars keeps Held miles away. And for much of this act people are (as is usual) miles apart: which is normal for Act III. But for example, when in Act I Tristan is the subject of Isolde’s narrative, Heppner is right there (instead of in the next “room”), lying as if in the healing bed. The size of playing area is tighter than usual in Act I.

    Even so it’s just my opinion… others will surely see it differently. That’s one of the fun things about Wagner. Gianmarco, you’re going to love it…!

  3. barczablog says:

    No worries, i think it was clear what you meant. Meanwhile i have to figure out what date i can go again: likely at the end of the run.

  4. I don’t think one could make an effective video recording of this production. Part of its power is its visual overwhelmingness; the sense that there’s just too much to see. That would be lost if a video director were making the choices for the audience. Also, at the risk of sounding a bit woo-woo, I think this production has to be experienced as part of an audience. The ritual element seems to demand that it be experienced collectively.

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