Back to Tristan

Last night the lemur and I braved the biggest snow storm in several years to catch Tristan und Isolde at the Four Seasons Centre.  It was the same production I saw last Tuesday but with Michael Baba and Margaret Jane Wray replacing Ben Heppner and Melanie Diener in the title roles.  I was also sitting at the front of the Orchestra Ring which is a very different sight line than the back of Ring 3.  There’s no way to avoid saying this, it was hugely disappointing and especially so as it was the first time the lemur had seen the show and I had been talking it up excitedly since Tuesday.  Baba and Wray sounded underpowered and under-rehearsed.  The big Act 2 duet, O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe, that had left me literally shaking on Tuesday merely left me shaking my head.  What had been a glorious, transcendent, hypnotic wave of sound had turned to mush.  It was a relief when Franz-Josef Selig, King Marke, took over.  At last we got some Wagnerian singing of style and class.  Act 3 wasn’t much better.  To be fair, the rest of the cast was just as good as on opening night and the orchestra deservedly got the loudest and longest applause of the night.  But Tristan und Isolde needs, as Isolde points out, Tristan and Isolde.

Tristan und Isolde - 0013 - Credit Chris Hutcheson

Not being blown away by the music did leave me more room to think about the production and especially Bill Viola’s videos.  I still think the overall approach is a very good way of dealing with the problem of staging such a less than action packed piece.  For the most part I also really enjoyed seeing the videos again.  I think they are most effective when they leave most to the imagination.  When they get really explicit they are less effective.  So, we open with black and white footage of the sea and waves pounding the shore.  I liked this though I am prepared to bet that the footage was shot on the west coast of the USA rather than Cornwall.  There are far too many trees!  The rest of Act 1 is mostly a pair of male and female figures ritually undressing and washing themselves.  I know this is supposed to evoke “Purification” which is fair enough but the style is a bit didactic.  The figures, though actual humans, are filmed in a style that makes them look like Second Life characters.  They are also perhaps too close to what we wished the singers who play Tristan or Isolde look like where, again, more abstraction might be better.

12-13-03-MC-D-0798-1000Acts 2 and 3 were much better though again stronger when more abstract and weaker when it seemed to be trying to parallel the narrative too closely.  The forest at night was beautifully evoked, as was the shipless sea at the beginning of Act 3.  Tristan’s death and dissolution melding, apothetically, into a vision of Isolde was really very effective indeed.

The stage action looked more interesting and more human from closer up and lower down though one definitely pays a price acoustically for that at the Four Seasons Centre.  Also, watching from the back of Ring 3, I completely missed the action with Melot and Marke that took place in the auditorium.  Curiously it isn’t obvious on stage that Isolde dies at the end of the Liebestod (she’s still standing) although the video is really doing the united in death, transcending everything thing pretty hard.

There are four more performances between now and February 23rd.  They are all sold out but standing room and maybe a few rushes will be available.  Unless you are just in it for the videos go on a night when Heppner and Diener are singing.

12-13-03-MC-D-1574Photo credits: Michael Cooper and Chris Hutcheson (and they are of the main cast not last night’s)

3 thoughts on “Back to Tristan

  1. When you say “pay a price acoustically” by sitting further down in the hall, are you saying the sound was better at the back of ring 3? If that’s what you mean, I would agree. Last night I started in the same standing room where you were (rear ring 3) and then by virtue of a generous ticket donation, was able to sit quite far front in the orchestra (I didn’t seat jump, I promise!!!) and up top, the sound was much warmer; the voices more integrated with the orchestra and, the orchestral sound much more blended. Last Saturday, when I heard Heppner/Diener from the side/front of ring 3, the voices sounded (acoustically) very much as they did from front orchestra, but the orchestra itself was much more present. Hard to know what I prefer overall, though I’d probably have to go with the more blended sound of standing room!
    The experience of the production itself was very different from out front vs. far side/front. Last night, the videos were more prominent but I still found it possible to focus on the singers if I wanted to (vs. the videos). I largely agree with your take on the videos themselves – really love the whole sequence as Tristan and Isolde make their way out of the shadowy forest into the light. Also, those strange ghostly, white figures (figures reflecting bright light?) are very effective.

    • “When you say “pay a price acoustically” by sitting further down in the hall, are you saying the sound was better at the back of ring 3?”

      I think the sound higher up is more balanced and richer. It’s much more noticeable for a “heavy” work like Tristan than something more lightly scored. If it has a drawback it’s that there are few/no directional cues as to who is singing and if there’s not much light on stage it can be a bit confusing.

  2. Spot-on about the videos, John. Too bad about the performance. About Isolde dying… a lot of productions leave Isolde standing. The final video of her plunging, which I also loved, need not be a commentary of the stage goings-on but sort of a meta-thing… like the two parts of the film Mulholland Drive.

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