Review: 'Tristan' is a stunner in Paris

PARIS - What is being billed as a "Tristan und Isolde" for the 21st century is in many ways timeless. The Peter Sellars production at the Paris Opera, dominated by Bill Viola's video, is an extraordinary evening of theater, aimed at the essential emotions of Wagner's great love story.

That it uses modern technology in an attempt to envelop the audience would no doubt please the composer, one of music's great innovators.

Billed as "The Tristan Project," the production was presented in a concert version in December at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. Seen in Saturday night's staged performance, the second in a run of seven, it met with great approval from the audience at the Bastille Opera House.

Viola's video runs the length of the opera except for the preludes, and it overwhelms, distracting from the performances by Ben Heppner (Tristan), Waltraud Meier (Isolde) and Franz-Josef Selig (King Marke). Many times, it's unclear where the eye should focus: the singers or the large screen above them in the center of the stage.

At first, it seems as if the performers are accompaniment to a music video, MTV for the Wagner set.

After a while, it becomes clear that the images, which run from grainy gray to high-definition color, are filled with metaphors for the actions and emotions of the protagonists, attempts to dig into what they are feeling. The opera opens with the ocean, is filled with scenes of a distant ship, fire, woods, sunrises and sunsets, and it ends with a bubbly ascent to heaven.

Much of the first act is a split screen, with Isolde on one side, Tristan on the other, the pair mutually taking part in a ritual purification as they strip naked and are doused in water. When they drink the love potion, they sink under the water, into a new world.

There are gripping, slow images of Tristan walking a great distance, the last part on water before he goes through a fire. In the second act, Isolde slowly lights dozens of candles arrayed in a pattern, then walks through water toward the lens. And when Brangaene sings from the an upper level during the love duet, a full moon is seen through trees in a signature moment

During the Liebestod, the lovedeath that concludes the opera, Tristan's body starts to bubble and he dissolves like Alka-Seltzer as he rises.

Sellars gives his own synopsis of the opera in the program. "Two damaged, angry, desperate and hurt human beings are on a long trip in the same boat," he writes. "For Isolde, suicidal despair takes the form of violent, destructive mood swings, bitter sarcasm, uncontrollable weeping, and the need to talk everything out. For Tristan, it is the scarred painful silence of emotional blockage and denial."

In this version, Tristan and Marke are former lovers, lending another level to Tristan's betrayal of the king, who kisses him tenderly.

Heppner, the great Tristan of this generation, sings with uncommon lyricism, especially in the quiet moments, and he has the stamina to keep his voice fluid to the finish. Meier has a great ability to convey emotions with her face, although her voice at times can be more strident than soft.

Sellars gives them what appear to be difficult positions to sing in - on their knees, next to each other, for part of the love duet, and flat on his back for Tristan for much of the third act.

They are clothed primarily in plain outfits in dark colors, and the only prop on the set is what looks to be a black platform bed.

Also in the strong cast were Yvonne Naef (Brangaene), Jukka Rasilainen (Kurwenal) and Alexander Marco-Buhrmester (Melot). Adding a sense of spaciousness was the decision to place the chorus, some horns and a few of the secondary singers in the higher levels of the house.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducting as he did in Los Angeles, kept the volume down, concentrating on the emotion rather than sonic beauty, and led an intense account of the 4-hour score.

This run goes through May 7, and seven more performances are set in a revival next November and December with Clifton Forbis (Tristan), Lisa Gasteen (Isolde), Willard White (Marke) and conductor Valery Gergiev. Discussions are underway to bring the production to New York in 2007.

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