Wagner – Tristan und Isolde

Opéra National de Paris – Bastille, April 28 2005
Conductor: Esa Pekka Salonen. Production: Peter Sellars. Stage design: Bill Viola. Lighting: James F. Ingalls. Costumes: Martin Pakledinaz. Chorus master: Peter Burian. Tristan: Ben Heppner. König Marke: Franz-Josef Selig. Isolde: Waltraud Meier. Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen. Brangäne: Yvonne Naef. Ein Hirt/Ein junger Seemann: Toby Spence. Melot: Alexander Marco-Buhrmester. Ein Steuermann: David Bizic. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Remember Anna Russell? Like Brünnhilde in her 20-minute Ring, it sometimes seems to me that Peter Sellars, the former enfant terrible of opera productions, has in recent years completely gone to pieces, espousing a sententious, sentimental, old hippie/new age, vaguely moralising style (El Niño, L’Amour de loin…) And now, in Bill Viola, he’s found a friend. Well, I’m an old hippie too, but I grew out of it. OK, I’ve given up smoking, but I’m not a vegetarian, I don’t wear Birkenstocks or homespun tunics, I don’t collect pebbles and light candles around the house, I don’t hug trees…

So these videos of Viola’s that are supposed to be the bee’s knees in this production did little for me. They were best at their grainiest and most abstract, worst when they looked like a Nina Ricci commercial. However, they were uninteresting enough not to be a distraction. The otherwise bare, black platform and dark clothes, neat blocking, tidy lighting and well-rehearsed movements made for a good, chic semi-staging; but, with Sellars’ and Viola’s fees and technical costs, presumably the most expensive semi-staging in the history of opera.

The last time I saw Tristan was in Vienna, with Voigt. I admit I can see, now, why people have said she “is not really Isolde.” She was noble, imperious and defiant, visibly in control, and the silvery voice was gleaming and confident, with ringing top notes. Waltraud Meier plays a more vulnerable, “broken” character more in keeping with the tortured texts. The voice, of course, is totally different: coppery bronze, with gorgeous sounds in the medium and upper medium and enough experience to turn trouble at the top to dramatic effect. If Meier has been through a sticky patch (I was told her voice, at a recital not so long ago, was “in ribbons”), she has certainly emerged triumphant. The one minor problem was the lack of contrast with Yvonne Naef’s resounding (occasionally squally) Brangäne: you had to “read their lips” to check who was singing.

After his well-known ups and downs, Heppner also seems to have emerged better than ever. The last time I heard him at the Bastille, the voice was rather ethereal. It has taken on body, and the rest… well, everyone knows what a marvellous voice it is, and for once we hear the role sung: shaped and phrased and nuanced and coloured – and acted.

The rest of the cast was strong, with the possible exception of a braying Kurwenal, and included the surprising, very English tones of Toby Spence, appearing on a balcony high up at the sides - as did the chorus, the cor anglais and the fanfares: Sellars had at least to do something to earn his fees!

Salonen went for his customary clarity and transparency of texture – you might even say a deliberately French sound, in contrast with the all-enveloping Vienna velvet - but also for some slow tempi – the Prelude, for a start. The orchestra was not as at home, I thought, in Wagner as in the recent War & Peace. The audience, having coughed their lungs out without reserve and received phone calls as if they couldn’t give a damn, roared their approval. One lone boo for the conductor, soon shouted down, but the players stayed in the pit to applaud the stage: always a good sign.


  1. Hello-

    I'm a radio producer in New York, and we're doing a story on different reactions to the Bill Viola Tristan & Isolde. I'd love to send you an email explaining what we're doing and to see if you might be interested in a quick phone interview with us. We're talking to lots of people all over the world about it, and really enjoyed your written review of the opera.

    If you're interested in learning more, just send me an email. amyoleary -- at -- gmail (dot) com

    Thanks so much,


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