"Tristan und Isolde" by Tim Ashley
"We hear the celestial voice of compassion expounding Buddha's four noble truths to mortals," is how Peter Sellars describes the love duet from Tristan und Isolde in a programme note for his new production of Wagner's masterpiece.
Once regarded as a great exploration of sex, Tristan has been re-evaluated as primarily a spiritual work of late, as directors and critics stress the influence on Wagner of Schopenhauer and eastern philosophy. Like Nikolaus Lehnhoff at Glyndebourne two years ago, Sellars sets out to explore the metaphysics underpinning the opera's eroticism. His staging lacks Lehnhoff's coherence, though it surpasses it in power.
Sellars' collaborator is video artist Bill Viola, whose film, projected on a colossal screen above the singers' heads, serves as both the set and as a commentary on the work's emotional progress.
The images are frequently stunning. Flashlights flicker through the forest where the lovers are eventually hunted down. As Tristan raves about the light that has caused him to leave the land of the dead and be reborn to earthly existence, water sluices like amniotic fluid through a vast chasm. There are intermittent irritations, however. Viola aims to parallel Wagner's narrative by depicting a couple undergoing mystic purification rituals, and the images are occasionally over-dominant and too obvious.
In act one, Wagner's music and Waltraud Meier's astonishing performance tell us all we need to know about Isolde's frustration, so the sight of the on-screen couple baring all seems unnecessary. The Liebestod, with Tristan's video counterpart slowly levitating upwards in a haze of bubbles, swivels awkwardly in the direction of sci-fi.
Sellars' direction of the protagonists, however, finds him at his best. His interpretation is anchored in the characters' psychology rather than imposed upon it, so that when Ben Heppner's Tristan hauls himself into a lotus position to contemplate Isolde's arrival it seems perfectly natural. Sellars is also strong on the work's homo eroticism, with Tristan and Franz-Josef Selig's Mark presented as ex-lovers now hopelessly drawn to the same woman.
Musically, it's stupendous. Meier and Heppner sing like gods. Selig is infinitely harrowing, while Yvonne Naef is the most intense Brangäne imaginable. Esa-Pekka Salonen's conducting is flawless in its combination of clarity, sweep and exaltation, holding the score's erotic and transcendental elements in perfect balance. Despite its flaws, the overall impact is shattering. A great occasion, no question.
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