After seeing Peter Sellars on Monday night I decided that (a) I had to see Ben Heppner as Tristan and (b) I couldn’t wait until next Friday when I have tickets to see Michael Baba in the role. So, I skipped out of the office yesterday morning and with a little help (thanks Sergey!) scored a standing room ticket for last night’s opening. (At $12 for nearly five hours music this was a remarkable bargain!). I’m back at my desk on five hours sleep and I’m still in shock. This will go down in legend.
I’d only seen Tristan und Isolde once before, in a disastrous MetHD broadcast, which had been so irritating that the music left little impression. Other times I’d attempted it on DVD I couldn’t get past the nothinghappensness of it. Last night I finally got it. In Sellars’ production not much happens on stage. The singers, in non descript monochrome outfits, come and go or stand around in square light spots. They gesture in characteristically Sellarian fashion but it’s almost classic “park and bark”. But, and it’s a huge but, behind them there is a giant screen on which videos by Bill Viola play more or less continuously and through them he evokes time and place and we see the inner journeys of the characters. It’s really hard to describe but it works brilliantly. To counterpoint the long meditative sections, when there is action it often happens off stage. The chorus sing off stage from various parts of the house and characters, too, appear on the orchestra apron or high up in the Rings. These action moments are often accompanied by lighting that encompasses the auditorium and implicates us in the action (but not the dark inner journey of Tristan and Isolde). It’s great. (1)
So what about the music? Heppner was in great voice. I think, maybe, he was husbanding his voice in Act 1 but he really let it go later on and it was solid and gorgeous. Melanie Diener was even better. What a singer! She has power to burn and gorgeous tone when she needs it. I was flagging physically by the time we got to the Liebestod (I’d been up 19 hours by then) but it mesmerized me. Just gorgeous. Alan Held too, as Kurneval, has less to do but what he did was fantastic. He’s a force of nature. Stentorian maybe but so commanding and powerful. Top notch singing and acting from Franz-Josef Selig as King Marke too. Daveda Karanas as Brangäne sounded a bit uncertain early on but got into her stride later on. It can’t be easy singing with a cast of such huge voices. All the minor roles came off well with a particularly lovely, lyrical solo at the beginning by Owen McAusland as the Young Sailor.
I wish I had the technical vocabulary to explain what Johannes Debus does with an orchestra but all I can say is I have never heard the COC orchestra sound better. It was wall to wall gorgeous, immersive playing. I haven’t had that kind of visceral musical experience since seeing my first Rhinegold so many years ago.
Maybe I can be a bit more analytic about this after a second look but for now I’m still in awe and very, very tired.
(1)The videos do an interesting job of evoking land and sea specific to a part of the world that is very much my spiritual home. That may be matter for a later post.
Photos by Michael Cooper