Highest, purest joy

12-13-03-MC-D-0022-21After 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)

12-13-03-MC-D-1516So 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

12 thoughts on “Highest, purest joy

  1. I saw this production some weeks ago on TV; it was a recording from Helsinki Festivals last August. The conductor was Esa-Pekka Salonen with Ben Heppner and Violeta Urmana in main roles and Matti Salminen as King Marke. It was really, really impressive even from home couch early on a Sunday morning.

    • I’m surprised it worked well on TV. Every review I’ve read in Toronto has commented one way or another on it being an immersive, even ritualistic, experience. The scale and the sense of being part of something certainly deeply affected me.

  2. Pingback: Back to Tristan | operaramblings

  3. I attended last night’s performance, with Heppner and Diener singing the lead roles. The singing was, as you say, fantastic, and I was especially impressed by Diener, who has a gorgeous and powerful voice. But it was Franz-Josef Selig’s King Marke who stole the show for me; what a dominating presence he is!

    The orchestra played beautifully; it was my first time in the new hall, and I was delighted at the warmth and immediacy of the sound — way up in Ring 5.

    As for the visual production, I was disappointed. The staging was dull and badly lit. Granted, it must be a thankless task to have to block out the staging for a drama in which, to a good approximation, nothing happens, but this was dismal and unimaginative. Heppner’s acting too often verged on toddler antics (waving arms, holding head, etc.).

    I also found the video projection largely an annoyance. Occasionally it was effective: the gradually lightening landscape at the end of Act II worked well, and the candle-lighting scene was suitably evocative, but for the most part I found it too pushy, adding a distracting layer of interpretation to the drama rather than allowing us to enter into Wagner’s scenario in our own way. It probably did not help that, from a side seat in Ring 5, one doesn’t see the stage action and the film in one glance, but must keep looking back and forth between the two.

    In the end, though, I am so glad that I went. Seeing Tristan und Isolde live has long been a wish of mine, and musically I was not disappointed. Now when will the COC do Parsifal?

    • As you say, creating a staging for Tristan isn’t easy. I basically like Sellars’ approach of focusing on the ritual elements rather than be overly literal. I had mixed reactions to the videos. Some I liked a lot, some not so much. I will say that the production looked better from the Orchestra Rig than from Ring 3 and I imagine that Ring 5 didn’t improve it. Totally agree with you on Selig. Awesome as Marke and fantastic in his lieder recital last week too. Parsifal? Well it’s just a matter of timing. Ticket sales for Tristan may have brought it a bit closer.

  4. Thanks for this link. The Melb Symphony Orchestra did this in one of their concerts this year as a lead up. $12 standing room what a great offer – we don’t have anything like that here but I’ve heard of it in many of the European Opera Houses. I’ll let you know how our Melb Ring goes – all sold out for 3 cycles and no standing room!!

    • All seven performances of Tristan sold out here. There was a lineup about round the block for standing room and rushes on opening night. The latest issue of “Prelude”, the COC’s subscriber magazine, suggests more Wagner is coming our way over the next few years. I may yet become a fan.

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