The Canadian Opera Company’s Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner, directed by Peter Sellars, design by Bill Viola. With Ben Hepner as Tristan and Melanie Deiner as Isolde. Run February 2013 in Toronto.
“Two damaged, angry, desperate, and hurt human beings are on a long trip in the same boat.” Is this some cartoon of a cruise ship disaster? Life of Pi without the tiger?
No. It is rather a surprising resume of the opening scene of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as written in the program notes by renowned American director Peter Sellars for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2013 production of this most difficult masterwork. Stretching musical and dramatic form, thrillingly navigating the balance between vocal and orchestral lines, this Tristan will be, in Sellars’ words, “not an opera but a life experience.”
Tristan and Isolde was first performed at the Royal Court and National Theatre in Munich, June 10, 1865 and last performed by the COC in 1987. The 2013 Toronto edition is a powerful fusion of artistic talents and it played to packed houses.
The yoking of love and battle is essential to this Celtic legend, whose origins are now literally lost in the mists of time. At the centre of it all is Tristan’s belief that a man can’t really be a warrior unless he is also a lover, that he must understand both sides of life and death at their deepest. It is this love-death trance, this extinction of self in the fatal knot of love, this hidden tryst with pleasure so extreme it crosses into pain, this ineffable transcendence filling the imagination with music, drama and poetry that throbs through Wagner’s epic opera. It is also the central image which must be found by any director.
In this impressive though not always satisfying production, the combination of Wagner’s music, Sellars’ profound psychological readings of character and video artist Bill Viola’s series of parallel images, takes the archeological shards of this ancient love triangle and builds a soaring land of inner space, a private kingdom of sensuality and art in what is a relentlessly public world.
The inner space of the personal is there from the beginning: the yearning, the ache of separation and betrayal imaged in a gigantic vision of misty white sky and breaking ocean waves. Isolde (sung by the impressive German soprano, Melanie Deiner) sits forlornly on a rock asking her friend Brangane (Greek American mezzo-soprano, Daveda Karanas), “Where are we?” Isolde is distraught, suicidally desperate, given to sarcasm, mood swings and uncontrollable weeping. Her presence grave, her voice richly orotund, she is a tortured creature, summarily sent for and lost. Torn from her royal Irish roots, a pawn in a political game that has used her powers against her, she anguishes amidst the elements she knows will destroy her. As she sings on the nearly empty stage, the lights of a small ship bob in the vast dark ocean imaged behind her.
“Ask him if he dares approach me,” Isolde instructs Brangane. Enter Tristan wrapped in Ben Heppner’s bright warm tenor. A veteran of Wagnerian opera, Heppner sings a role that has been central to his career for 15 years. Still regarding Tristan as a challenge equal to climbing Mount Everest, Heppner embodies the very human side of this unhappy hero with an appropriately stumbling physicality. No grand hero, his Tristan is pudgy and almost boyish, the unsure boy inside a tired dispossessed soldier, an orphan of love who feels basely unworthy of the woman he treasures and fears. A study in battered nobility, he has agreed to deliver Isolde as a kind of ‘trophy bride’ to his more than good friend King Mark of Cornwall, the two men here apparently also being lovers.
On the huge screen behind the actual singers (who are dressed mostly in basic black) another pair of more traditional looking, handsomer young lovers walk slowly forward (almost Robert Wilson-like). As the live Isolde sobs her tale over a suffering Tristan the on-screen lovers close their eyes in sexual anticipation. Eventually they are totally naked and eventually on-stage the singers (still in black) drink together what they think is death, freeing them from their sorrows. The potion they have imbibed so greedily, however, is the distillate of pure love. Separate but connected entities, the on-screen lovers remain nameless throughout the production and are meant to represent the purity of passion between Tristan and Isolde that endures beyond earthly calamity.
The music soars. Ritualistically, the on-screen images dance, water gushing over them as the ship heaves into port and trumpets blaze from theatre balconies announcing King Mark.
Image creator Bill Viola states he does not want to illustrate the story directly but to unearth the “hidden dimensions of our inner lives,” swelling up through poetry and music. Increasingly, these parallel images charge the opera, becoming a visual energy surge that explores earth, air, fire and water for their natural power and emotional resonance. On stage, the singers are left to sing which is what they do best in opera. Two productions simultaneously emerge.
Isolde on screen, lights one candle after another in a sequence of ceremonial reverence. The lovers of the image opera fly up through water, white-robed. The fire in the music roars as passion consumes them. They walk together through sparks, lights in darkness. They kneel. They float beneath the waves upwards, a life force being born.
On stage their embrace is a simple lying down side by side. In the bliss of their ascent, poised on the treacherous arrow of their union, in the moment of becoming one another, they begin their descent. Day is threat.
Finding them lying together, Franz Josef-Selig’s Mark sings the bass notes of his profound sorrow, claiming he loved Tristan beyond the conventions of traditional marriage. Tristan–at home now only in Isolde’s love is killed by his former friend and King Mark’s servant, Melot (Franz-Josef Selig).
The final lament begins. Mortally wounded, Tristan searches the horizon for the boat that will bring Isolde, his dear healer, to him. On screen, a boat drifts into evening, blinking its lights. At dawn Tristan sings from his prone position. We see on screen his ancestral home in thin sunlight with bright birch trees taunting him. But his destiny is fixed: “I was where I have forever been and am forever going.” He must keep watch for her ship’s bright light, his very life.
The on-screen image runs red with fire, with blood as Isolde’s voice fills his dying moments. Isolde is devastated. On screen the relentless flames dance in water, blue and orange, then blue to black. Mark, also distraught, cries of his “faithless, faithful friend.” The mission of reconciliation has failed.
Carried beyond herself, Isolde intones the famous Liebestod as this four and-a-half hour theatrical adventure ends. On screen, an ethereally shrouded figure floats up and up and up in expanding bubbles of water, rising on her notes, resurrected into some larger bliss known only through death and love. Blue light breaks behind the waves.
When in Bill Viola’s media interview how the final scene was accomplished by lowering a man on a wire through a waterfall constructed in the studio then running it in reverse and you realize how the range of technology and art forms had to remain “moving in time, constantly changing and flowing as the music does,” then you begin to comprehend the magnitude of this effort to meet every level of myth, drama, music, and poetry on which Wagner’s creation turns. Is the use of video imagery instead of elaborate set preferable in our technologically advanced, economically cautious twenty-first century for grand opera? Certainly Sellars thinks so. Certainly Robert Lepage (whose recent work on Wagner’s Ring cycle went a similar though more expensive way) thinks so. And clearly the Canadian Opera Company which has done many stripped down productions over the years (their Aida comes to mind) certainly thinks so. One wonders how the COC could do such multi-dimensional, multi-sensual, uber-dramatic work any other way.
Does it succeed? If you are a purist you will, no doubt, miss the sets and costumes. If you’re not, though, it does succeed much the way a good life succeeds. Not perfect but still irrefutably lived through failure and triumph.
 Patricia Keeney is a freelance theatre critic based in Toronto. The winner of the 2012 Nathan Cohen Award for Criticism from the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, she has written for publications world-wide. She is also a published poet and novelist with ten books to her credit and a Professor of English at Toronto’s York University.