“Everything is art, everything is politics” – Ai Weiwei
The concert starts playing at 27:28. Enjoy.
“Everything is art, everything is politics” – Ai Weiwei
The concert starts playing at 27:28. Enjoy.
The Don Giovanni of the winter season 2015 at the COC is the same Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni seen at the open stage of Aix-en-Provence’s festival. This time it appears that the production of which I have seen a dress rehearsal came across somewhat different.
Keeping the same stage throughout was perhaps accommodation to the limitations of the open stage in Aix rather than an attempt at minimalism. It is a key characteristic of Tcherniakov’s take on Don Giovanni. It is a hall of an urban household with custom-made pillars of bookcases symmetrically on both sides of the main entrance. There are no-name dinnertable chairs and a large rectangular dinnertable. The floor is covered with a large carpet. At the centre above is a humongous chandelier that can be anywhere from the Thirties until the late Sixties. I would say that it is a post-WWII situation. It is the same location of the memorial service upon the Commendatore’s passing and his family home. Donna Elvira is a cousin of Donna Anna. Zerlina, who in the original libretto is a peasant bride in a passerby wedding, is actually a daughter of Donna Anna, from her first marriage.
Although apparently at home, none of them behaves at home in that space. Don Giovanni appears more at home at this place than any of the women whose home it actually is. All the women are as if they were in a public place or asylum, but not at home.
A lot has already been written about costumes and what sort of character and habits that costumes imply. From where I was watching the costumes were for the most part indistinct. Zerlina’s wedding gown is post-Nineties hip hop. Elvira’s allegedly subdued elegance is in fact reduced to a drab, anonymous, grey outfit most suitable for basement cleaning. The Don himself is mostly dressed in a casual summer attire of a downtown homeless man attending a lunch at an upscale charity. And likewise his hairdo. For some unknown reason he appears frequently barefoot. The singers are subjected to protracted periods of lying scattered on the carpet over the stage, and I was not able to decipher what Tcherniakov meant to say by that.
There are numerous occasions when the singers are lacking guidance in stage movements and stood idle on the scene, almost not inhabiting the role. The interactions were occasionally in the direction of explicit and somewhat distasteful groping on the aggressive side which did not enhance any meaning that would be consistent and integrated into a larger context. Furthermore, the lighting was in particular neglected.
Most praiseworthy in this Don Giovanni are the singers. My favourites are Jane Archibald and Michael Schade. Russell Brown as the Don will not be remembered for any of the Don’s memorable arias. Peter Mattei’s Don Giovanni of the 2002 Aix-en-Provence Festival still reigns supreme, if you ask me.
The stage rendition of the famous Leporelo’s Madamina is a sadly missed opportunity to breed in some fun in this Don. While Leporello is uttering into the void air the geographical tallies of his master’s getting laid in the spirit of sport, Donna Anna is standing idle in a non-responsive state.
When I saw the live stream from Aix-en-Provence thanks to a helpful link from Parterra Box, the utmost authority in opera blogosphere, the then Don was more of a pater familias and there were more scenes of sitting at the table, which dignified every character to some extent, as is suitable to a living room or study.
The contextual reading of Don Giovanni by Calixto Bieito is an example of an integrated vision where the mannerism, costume and conduct of the people belonging to the shady edges of the underworld result in a coherent and powerfully told story. Or the Don Giovanni by Martin Kusej, with each character distinct and developed, yet the whole narrative elevated to the sphere of universality.
Plenty of explanatory materials have already been written in anticipation of this Don Giovanni. I would recommend that those who are interested in following the rising star of Jane Archibald and enjoy the privilege of listening the Michael Shade should come and listen with the eyes shut. The orchestra played a rendition, here and there, to my ears accentuated in an enriching and energizing way. Worth listening to, but watching may disappoint you. If criticism outweighs the accolades you can always blame it on the Russian.
To those who cannot sing, opera is a spellbinding miracle. Verdi’s generous canon on mostly melodramatic librettos provided to those who sing myriad opportunities to enchant the audiences, performance after performance, not only during Verdi’s successful career but also well into the second century after his death.
If the purpose of art is to be beautiful and the purpose of opera to give the audience beautiful singing, the performance on February 5 of Verdi’s A Masked Ball at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto was a success and celebration. To hear the tenor Dimitri Pittas and his resplendent and nuanced voice was in itself worthy of attending this performance. The clarity and sheer power of Adriane Pieczonka’s voice is a different kind of beautiful, and maybe not the best match for the role of Amelia, but Ms. Pieczonka can sing anything with the piercing clarity of the voice she is gifted with.
But the purpose of art is also to tell the truth, an eternal truth of a human condition regardless of time and space, culture or nationality. The directors Sergio Morabito and Jossi Wieler say that the story their Masked Ball explores is how fragile our identity can be, how quickly and suddenly a social position or a relationship that seems secure and steady can crumble down.
This production was originally made six years ago for Staatsoper Unter Den Linden Berlin. In their directors’ notes Mr. Morabito and Mr. Wieler remind us of the numerous censorship revisions required of Verdi which shifted the plot from the assassination of a Swedish King to a melodramatic story in Boston, Massachusetts.
Censorship remains also an eternal truth. From the explicit prohibition to show the killing of a Royal figure on stage in the time of Verdi’s Italy, it evolved into a modern-day invention of self-censorship. Embedded in the overreaching confidentiality and secrecy clauses that govern many contracts today, self-censorship is a shield for wrongdoing and a sword of prosecution against those who dare speak up. Choosing to say no to the power by giving priority to one’s moral values over the pragmatic “wisdom” of self-censorship has always been a bold act that could easily crumble down any life. One need not look further than to the global, earth-shaking case and fate of Edward Snowden.
The fragility of the human status and uncertainty of relationship and social position are presented today in much brighter colours by the daily news than by a six-year-old Berlin opera production now revived in Toronto. Monarchs of today have given up the power to govern the affairs of their realms, but are keen on the privileges that material wealth provides. Therefore their heads are targeted in corruption investigations rather than assassinations. Contemporary assassinations tend to revolve around those who actually have power to govern affairs of their realms. Assassinations are rampant in Islamic countries like Pakistan, Libya and Iraq. And Syria shaping up as a strong next candidate.
A rather contemporary take on the matters of the fragility of the human status and self censorship, with several layers of intended and unintended meaning, can be seen on Youtube if you click here.
Cosi fan tutte is a hilarious comic opera ridiculing a big bubble of grand wows of commitment to eternal love and how it all burst into nothing on the slightest temptation. At the time it was made, it was met with resistance because its direct thrust at the morality of hypocrisy was perhaps too radical in its directness and humour. This may not be the most inspiring piece for an experiment in Regietheater simply because it is such a good comedy and any attempt to intervene may take away from it rather than uncover anything new that has not already been on its face. It appears that the production under the directorship of Atom Egoyan had that unfortunate effect. The subtitle was “A School for Lovers”, which like everything else has a tongue in cheek, was taken in its literal meaning and the two female key characters are two schoolgirls, while the story takes place as a lesson with the recurring theme of butterflies. The end result is a stage that suffers from clutter and kitsch topped with the presence of Frida Kahlo’s painting Two Fridas, which if I may say is a confusing mismatch. While this opera abounds in vaudevillian humour, Frida Kahlo is the remotest opposite from anything vaudevillian, burlesque or humorous. As a painter and a person she invokes pain and suffering and I cannot relate anything about her to Cosi fan tutte.
The charming team of young singers accompanied by the veteran Sir Thomas Allen saved the show by being true to Mozart. It was felt in the audience that Paul Appleby, Robert Gladow, Layla Claire, Wallis Giuntta and Tracy Dahl actually had fun performing this piece. However, the orchestra could have sounded a lot crisper and fresher than it did last Saturday night at the COC.
A perfect opportunity to give the aging megadonors of Toronto what they really want—a night to enjoy the “crinolines and cleavages” one more time—is missed for a lukewarm and foggy attempt to say something when there is nothing to say except to laugh and have fun.
On October 26, 2013, a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera New York presented Shostakovich’s opera The Nose as staged in 2010, by William Kentridge. The story of The Nose is a predecessor to the theatre of absurd. The sense of humour of Eugene Ionesco or Monty Python is similar to that of The Nose. Being an accomplished artist Mr. Kentridge sensed the spirit of the story and created a set that combines the elements of Chaplin choreography, the shadow theatre, cartoon animation with a series of small scenes that rapidly follow one another in a dynamics akin to the one in the circus, by utilizing only the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the stage, as if deliberately dispensing with the dimension of depth, creating thereby the illusion of a film on stage. Mr. Kentridge decided to set The Nose in the time of Stalin’s Soviet Russia, the time when Shostakovich composed it. Well-researched documentary materials of prints, fonts and newspapers revives in a humorous way the spirit and aesthetics of soc-realism. Throughout the performance, a banner written in the English language that reads: “all will be revealed” was displayed repeatedly. It bears a curious aptness with a present-time exciting event, a matter to which we will return later.
The story of The Nose, in short, goes like this: One day the barber Yakovlevich, minding his own business while peacefully having his usual breakfast, finds to his horror a human nose in his loaf of bread. The next morning Collegiate Assessor Kovalyev, a customer of Yakovlevich of the previous day, discovers to his horror that his nose has disappeared from his face. This bizarre opera is about the fugitive nose and the large-scale nosehunt to get hold of it and return it to its rightful place. At the end all is well and the nose is back where it belongs.
Nikolai Gogol wrote this satirical novel—some would say grotesque—in 1836. At that time, two czars, Alexander I and his successor Nikolai I, to be precise, ruled Russia. It was a time of censorship, surveillance and intellectual persecution of the greatest Russian poets Pushkin and Lermontov. From the broader historical time/event perspective, this novel was written 177 years ago in the era when humankind did not yet enjoy the benefits of electrical power. On the other side of the globe, the voices against slavery in the United States of America were met with violent opposition by pro-slavery mobs, and Charles Darwin was still sailing on his ship.
About a century later in 1928, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his satirical opera The Nose, inspired by Gogol. It was at the time a few years after the death of Lenin, when Stalin was taking control of Russia. The recurring feature to Gogol time was that censorship, persecution and surveillance were taking firm roots in Soviet Russia, indisputably on a much larger scale. Shostakovich composed this opera as a satire on the times of Gogol’s life in Russia.
Fast forward another 85 years and we are watching a live broadcast of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose staged for the Metropolitan Opera in New York by William Kentridge, a South African artist living in Australia. He chose to set the opera in the time when Shostakovich was writing it, the time of Stalin’s Soviet Russia.
Surveillance and All WILL BE REVEALED appears as the recurring theme in the real life and art alike that makes Gogol’s nose protruding from of his overcoat in monarchy and dictatorship indiscriminately. Let’s examine what this is all about and can we relate it to our reality.
Nomen est omen. The nose, the organ of the sense of smell, alerts many species to danger or prey. It is the nose that gives us, humans, a precious, sometimes life-saving clue that something is wrong or suspicious. Or it can signal something unmistakably good. Figuratively speaking, the nose is the judge that gives a verdict on the sum of various little signs that stick out from the situation that we perceive through different senses, a visceral impression, a gut feeling that we process and declare: “I smell a rat”. The Nose metaphorically represents that instinct that leads us in a certain direction and gives us the first indication of something we urgently need to act upon. Nose is also a curiosity. The nose takes interest in the matters that concern us, but also those which are none of our business.
Satirical spirit of Gogol and Shostakovich is coincidentally awakened at the Met at the time of a blossoming surveillance of unprecedented magnitude. It is curious that in spite of its considerable age The Nose appears to be in sync with time. This phenomenon is also known. Its scientific name is synchronicity. C.G. Jung wrote an essay on that subject. We humans on this planet recently learned that surveillance is at its all-time peak. The secret we-know-whose-government’s nosy activity was upon revelation instantly high-browed and declared a matter of utmost national security. Means justify the ends and no one’s privacy is spared when the greatest nation of all has to confront its many, some yet unknown, yet potential enemies waiting only to blow their venomous and evil strike.
Diplomatic tensions tightened. Summits get cancelled. An American became a political refugee in Russia. Swiftly named as a traitor it was he who compromised the biggest Nose on Earth. Another misguided Nose whispered to a privy nose’s ear that the traitor was travelling to hide in Bolivia. The Bolivian President was almost under arrest in Vienna and his plane searched but the traitor was not there. France apologized. Austria silently shrugged and pretended not to be where the airport in Vienna was. The dispatched Seals were falsely alarmed and retreated quietly after their sudden emergence in this international imbroglio. The Nose’s contraband was handed to the Guardian. The harassment of the boyfriend at Heathrow was proclaimed a matter of foreign national security and as such presumably justified. A German Angela took offense at the practice of nosing her private cell phone and declared it conduct unbecoming among friends. All is compromised, and as it was shown in Kentridge’s The Nose– ALL WILL BE REVEALED. What a curious recurring theme!
The operetta which is being performed in headline news live, as you are reading this, is not a piece of art. We are only hearing a censored prelude. We do not quite know yet if it will end in shooting and singing, and who will laugh last.
Kentridge’s Nose at the Met is a fine piece of art, but the one more fitting for a museum. The Nose we still await to laugh at, is grotesquely real, growing, and still at large.
Dialogues des Carmelites, on the stage of COC this spring, is a piece of spellbinding beauty, and a roaring success. Every element of this production is perfect in itself and perfectly fitting into the whole. Three world-renowned Canadian artists, director Robert Carsen and the two sopranos Isabel Bayrakdarian and Adriane Pieczonka took part in this production.
The key character of this opera is Blanche, a daughter of the Marquis de la Force. At the time of the French Revolution Blanche is a young woman. She fears the uncertainties of the volatile and merciless world outside her home, and the home is no longer a safe place. From the violence of life she seeks refuge in religion by becoming a nun in a Carmelite convent.
The Carmelites are a mendicant order devoted to prayer and contemplation. The life within the convent soon reveals to Blanche that prayer and contemplation may not deliver salvation. Madame De Croissy, the prioress of the convent, who has devoted every day of her life to contemplating death is old and undergoing a slow agony. She is surrounded by the loving care of her nuns. Yet she is dying in anguish, absorbed by fear and panic. Seeking refuge from the outside life is not enough; Blanche has to face the fear of death. In accepting her fate to be executed with the other nuns, Blanche finds her peace by discovering in her own death the salvation that lies only within.
Depicting the fearful yet determined character of young Blanche caught in a whirlwind of sweeping historical changes, Isabel Bayrakdarian uncovered a shimmering yet piercing layer in her singing which I have not noticed before. Adriane Pieczonka with the dark and firm hue of her voice gave the role of the succeeding prioress Madame Lidoine the convincing calm of a mature, grounded woman.
Judith Forst, with her exceptional dramatic power touches the peaks of the emotional agony of the dying prioress in all the right moments and measures. She brought to life the character of Madame De Croissy in full flavours. Jean-François Lapointe, a Quebec-born baritone, has that creamy aspect in his voice that is a right match for the role of the Marquis de la Force, Blanche’s father.
The collaboration among director Robert Carsen, set designer Michael Levine, costume designer Falk Bauer, choreographer Philippe Giraudeau, and light designer Jean Kalman re-created for this production by Cor van den Brink, produced a coherent, smooth and effortless unfolding of this story from the beginning to the end.
The COC orchestra with Johanes Debus rendered the score with an emphasis on forcefulness as the underlying atmosphere of revolution, while eloquently expressing musical phrases, thereby revealing the influence of Stravinsky and Wagner.
Francis Poulenc himself lived most of his life in the historically turbulent time of two world wars and the communist revolution. He also suffered the death of several close friends and partners. The libretto is based on a novel by Gertrude von le Fort, written in 1931 and inspired by the actual execution of 16 nuns during the Reign of Terror. Even though Poulenc’s association with the surrealist movement marks a great deal of his works, this opera, composed only 57 years ago, rests mainly on the musical tradition that preceded his century.
A hundred and eight years ago Richard Strauss’s Salome was premiered in Dresden followed by 38 curtain bows. Shortly thereafter it was staged in fifty other theatres across Europe. At the Austrian première in Graz 1906, in the audience were Alban Berg, Giacomo Puccini and Gustav Mahler. The libretto is based on an Oscar Wilde play which inspired Strauss to write this opera. It is a biblical story about the death of John the Baptist in the captivity of Herod, the Roman governor of Judea.
A renowned Canadian film director, Atom Egoyan, directed the Richard Strauss’s Salome which was performed this season at the COC. In this biblical story of degenerate mores, princess Salome attempts to seduce Jochanaan, John the Baptist, who is held in the captivity of her stepfather Herod. Salome seduces the guard to bring the prisoner Jochanaan. She tries to seduce Jochanaan to kiss her. Failing to arouse any interest from the imprisoned prophet, the princess goes back to the banquet in Herod’s garden and agrees to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils for her lustful stepfather, on condition that he fulfill her wish. She demands the severed head of Jochanaan to be delivered to her on a silver platter. Herod, although disgusted over such an idea, cannot retract on his promise. Seeing Salome fondling the severed head, Herod, in profound disgust, shrieks and declares her mad and fit for Sodom and Gomorrah, summoning the guards to kill Salome. The guards follow the order.
Herod, his wife and Salome abide in their quarters dressed in casual bathrobes. A lack of splendour and signs of neglect in the bare garden of Herod, combined with the grey and green lighting, hint at the decay and disorder that must accompany such abominable deeds. Combining video projections and a theatre of shadows with the classical stage set, the story unfolds with coherence, but remains within the realm of the conventional. Yet the conventional cannot be at par with this shocking story and dramatic extremes of music delivered by the superb orchestra under conductor Johanes Debus.
In a Met production of Salome with Karita Matilla in the title role, her drunken dance delivers the true degenerate madness that carries the weight of this whole unhinged story. This production is short of this anchoring point. It is not enough that Herod is attending his garden party dressed in a wife-beater and pajamas under his orange bathrobe. His lust and titillation are meek and pale. For this magnitude of the abominable, the set and costumes appear as too conventional. The most revolting point in this opera should not be a princess kissing the severed head on the platter, but something that inevitably leads to it.
Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnagårdh as Salome has more than the required strength in her upper register for this role. Ms. Sunnagårdh delivered a superb performance. Richard Maragison as Herod was impressive in delivering transition from the anesthetized hedonistic boredom towards the agonizing despair of decision making in commanding the execution of the stepdaughter he adores. Martin Gantner, although vocally equal to the task, sang the role of John the Baptist with a stamina and resoluteness more suitable for a guerrilla-fighter than a prophet, having no compassion or forgiveness for the fallen woman.
Despite all these objections, the performance is a success, most notably for the singers and the orchestra.
Lucia di Lammermoor is too tragic in itself to endure further layers of tragedy, without serious risk of sinking into irreparable overkill. There was an overkill with Lucia at the COC this season.
On top of everything tragic and unfortunate already provided in the libretto, Lucia is a child-bride and sexually abused. She has a toybox. She is like a character in a Charles Dickens’s story of dirty game of money and power, with youth and love as counterbalance. As if that were not enough, the story had to be spiced up with sexual abuse and incest. American soprano Anna Christy responded dutifully to the additional demands of the title character. During Acts One and Two she spends a great deal of her stage time on her knees. The creative team got enthusiastic with the expressiveness about Lucia as a sexually abused child. Reviews in the daily papers speak about this sexually explicit content depicting the groping, tying of the hands to the bed frame, etc. This is, I believe, the first time I can fully agree with the critic of the National Post. (My strong disagreement about Einstein on the Beach and Semele remains.) On the other hand, historically looking, marriages were arranged, and the brides often were very young. Marriages among family members were customary. From that perspective it is probably a legitimate reading of Lucia’s plot. All things considered, the real Lucia is more likely in reality to be something like the character depicted in this production, than a romanticized version of Lucia where she appears as a fully developed, fulfilled adult who truly goes mad after the dense climax, which is charged with the utmost cathartic extreme. Having said that, good taste is very important in the matters of depicting reality of cruelty, violence, and sex on stage.
Visually, the stage is drained of any colour and the underlying spirit is drab and tired. Rain would make a fine contribution to the overall impression. The final scene was supposed to be the suicide of Lucia’s sweetheart Edgardo, who cannot endure the tragic realization that Lucia in a single day married another, killed him on the wedding day, went mad, and died— while loving him faithfully throughout. Lucia’s marriage to a wealthy suitor was a set up, arranged by her brother, who double-crossed both Lucia and Edgardo.
All would have been fine had it not been for the last moment, when Edgardo killed himself. According to the various sources of this particular libretto, Edgardo “plunges a dagger to his own heart” or “stabs himself” or “stabs himself in the heart with a dagger” and “stabs himself and expires”. Carried away with the personal touch, this creative team have Edgardo kill himself with a gun. After shooting himself Edgardo sings further until Enrico finishes him off in a Jack Bauer style of finishing of an enemy. That was a real overkill, which then brings into question all the interpretative innovations mentioned before. By this last act Enrico acquires another char6acter trait, which makes him not only a selfish, immoral abuser and ruthless plotter but also a cruel murderer who cannot resist but apply a mercenary killing technique on his sister’s lover, who had already killed himself.
This particular Lucia di Lammermoor has some spooky elements of madness. The whole idea of deceiving the lovers and small-conning them individually is sufficiently wicked even for a 19th -century psychopath as seen from a 2013 North American viewpoint. Adding sexual abuse and throwing in an additional murder is just too much.
The stage interpretation of this libretto restricted bel canto potentials and reduced the known qualities of this opera, limiting thereby the space for the singers. Steven Costello’s Edgardo was shaped with attentive and convincing phrasing. Brian Mulligan’s Enrico was on the side of strength. Without Costello’s lament and Mulligan’s strength, the whole project of this Lucia would hardly be able to stand on the wobbly knees of kneeling Lucia. This unfinished concept to some extent affected the orchestra, which could not attune to any particular dramatic quality of the sound except for a couple of effective caesure.
Seasonal flu prevented Michael Schade from performing the title role on February 9, 2013. The opportunity presented itself for a young tenor Owen McCausland. Hopefully for Mr. McCausland this will turn out to be one of those career milestones after which everything changes because we the audience had a chance to see that he is a tenor to keep an eye on. At the incredible age of 22 he assumes the role of a Roman emperor with a maturity, confidence and conviction extraordinary for a singer at such an early stage in his career and at that age. A native of Saint John, New Brunswick he emerges as a talented young singer, a multiple year winner of the New Brunswick Competitive Festival of Music. We will see him again this spring in Salome. He appeared in the previous season in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, understudied a role of Spalanzani in the Tales of Hoffman, and just this season in a small role of a young sailor this month in Tristan and Isolde. In 2011 he was one of the winners of the COC Ensemble Studio competition.
The authorities I usually research on the subject of opera more or less agree that La Clemenza di Tito is not an opera even its author would be particularly proud of. Mozart wrote it in less than three weeks for the money he desperately needed. It was written for the coronation of Leopold II, King of Bavaria. Mozart wrote it at the time when he was busy writing the Magic Flute, recycling a libretto which was used before by many lesser known composers. The plot is improbable. At a time when for lot minor transgressions people were thrown into cages with lions, it seems a little dubious that for plotting the assassination of a Roman emperor, the conspirators would be forgiven and get away with it with only a few mildly resentful “tsk tsks” from the emperor. Yet, this is exactly what happens. It is a digestible piece of a little over two hours with plenty of roles for female voices, including two “trouser roles”, some beautiful duets and orchestration bearing a distinct Mozart flavour. It is also a nice little opera that fills the season’s repertoire and gives the young singers an opportunity to break their stage fright and gain some valuable confidence-building experience, or as is the case of Owen McCausland a chance to rise and shine. This is exactly how it appears this season at the Canadian Opera Company.
This production of the Chicago Opera Theater, directed by Christopher Alden, uses a simple set that remains unchanged throughout, resembling the Capitol of any capital that has it, including joggers, lobbyists, warts and all. Many humorous details are sprinkled through acting and stage movements that give a touch of lightness to this dramatic plot with a happy ending.
In “trouser roles” there were Isabel Leonard, a young American soprano as Sesto, and Wallis Giunta as Annio. Robert Gleadow in the role of Publio, and Mirelle Asselin as Servilia were other COC Ensemble studio members who took part in this opera with praiseworthy performance. It was the commendable team work of young singers and the 28-year-old conductor, Daniel Cohen, a protégé of Daniel Barenboim.
Worth mentioning are the lighting designer Gary Marder and set designer Andrew Cavanagh Holland, whose delicate attention and attunement contributed to the overall success that staging of this piece permits.
This season the Canadian Opera Company’s home in Toronto is the place for revival of the 2005 production of “Tristan and Isolde”, originally staged at the Opera Bastille in Paris. The truth of the proverbial phrase, that less is more, has been proven in this production of “Tristan and Isolde”. The acting role of singers was almost eliminated. The purpose of the costumes was to attract no attention whatsoever. The key visual elements of the stage are work of a visual artist Mr. Bill Viola. They are films and images projected onto the large screen in the background depicting the movements of water and fire, light and air. The majestic currents of Wagner’s score in its breath-like rhythm took the central role and carried each of us in the audience to a private inner journey.
Peter Sellars in his director’s notes provided a reading of this libretto from the perspective of an esoteric quest with purification, awakening and transformation corresponding to the three acts of the opera. In light of his director’s notes, and stimulated by the visual projections on the screen, I attuned to the different roles in this opera as different aspects of a human being rather than as a plot with different characters. From this perspective, the representations of the sexual, emotional and intellectual in a human being were depicted in their polarity by Tristan and Isolde, Brangäne and Kurwenal, and Marke and Melot. Under the command of conductor Johannes Debus, Wagner’s orchestral reflections on love and death filled the air with scintillation and splendour, pulsating sublime erotic waves. “Tristan and Isolde” felt like a sacred initiation.
It occurred to me that instead of a traditional wedding ceremony, perspective spouses should be asked to listen to “Tristan and Isolde” while sitting silently and looking each other in the eyes, holding each other’s hands for the duration of this opera. After such an experience their gut feeling would crystallize more clearly towards yes or no, giving them a lot better idea if they want each other in marriage. The rate of divorce might drop significantly if a couple who wish to become married are required to perform such a marriage test ceremony.
We were privileged to hear Ben Heppner in his signature role as Tristan, Melanie Diener as Isolde, Alan Held as Kurwenal, Daveda Karanas as Brangäne, Adam Luther as Shepherd, Robert Gleadow as Steersman, Owen McCausland as a Young Sailor, and Ryan McKinny as Melot. My favourite was Franz-Josef Selig as King Marke. The experience of listening to his singing resembles what I imagine might feel like raking your fingers through the treasure chest of the finest jewelry of pearls, gold and precious stones.
The theatre felt like a giant pod where we the spectators were seeds being immaculately fertilized by waves of heavenly sounds from the stage and the pit, and at the end released into the cold winter night to grow the light with which we were impregnated.