Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

ONP Bastille, Wednesday December 3 2008

Conductor: Semyon Bychkov. Production: Peter Sellars. Video: Vidéo Bill Viola. Tristan: Clifton Forbis. König Marke: Franz-Josef Selig. Isolde: Waltraud Meier. Kurwenal: Alexander Marco-Buhrmester. Brangäne: Ekaterina Gubanova. Melot: Ralf Lukas. Ein Hirt / Ein junger Seemann: Bernard Richter. Ein Steuermann: Robert Gleadow. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

This final reprise of Peter Sellars' production of Tristan (although this is the most expensive production of Gerard Mortier's tenure, the ONP's right to use the videos runs out soon and they will be delivered to the museums that bought them) was musically oustanding, with one sad exception. Either Waltraud Meier was having a singularly bad night, or her career as Isolde has ended. She could manage the middle range when the orchestra was quiet, and so played on that (and of course exploited her experience in the part to moving effect); but at most times it seemed she was marking to save her voice. As a result she was often simply inaudble. Her top notes were shouts-plus-tremolo, not singing at all, and all flat, all of them. Act 2, in which, apart from those few dire moments of "anything-you-can-bray-I-can-bray-higher" chromatic hysteria, Isolde's part is largely in the middle range and not too loud, came off best but was nevertheless really Tristan's, as beside him she was at times barely existent.

Oddly, for Act 3 she found some voice - and it transpired afterwards that my neighbour had had exactly the same thought as I: had she had an injection of some kind during the second interval? Her final scene was therefore not a catastrophe, but the top notes were painful nontheless and she was still not audible enough. Had she not been Waltraud M. but someone new trying the role, she'd have been booed, I'm sure. However, in homage to a career now spanning over 30 years, she was received rapturously.

Clifton Forbis is presumably about as good a Tristan as you can get these days. I rummaged round in my head for a reference to describe his timbre and decided it was quite like Vickers', only less "smoky." A big voice with quite a bugle edge to it, useful for making himself heard over full orchestra. He occasionally ran the risk of strangling his notes in vibrato. But he shone against poor Waltraud.

Brangäne seemed quite uninteresting in Act 1 but was then excellent in her warnings in Act 2. Selig was a big, bearish, cavernous sort of King and the role is, after all, a gift.

As well as the love affair on stage we had one in the pit, between "Tristan" Bychkov and "Isolde" ONP Orchestra. I don't think I've ever heard them play so well. Marvellous music-making. Well, apart from the odd "machine-gun" pizzicato. And I don't think I've ever seen them applaud a conductor so vigorously as they did (tapping their instruments and stamping their feet) when he returned for Act 3.

The staging hasn't changed. To the French press, it has become the defining production of Mortier's reign and a landmark in the history of Tristan. The ticket touts were having a field day outside. At second sight, I found the videos less distracting - no doubt the first time round you feel you have to pay them more attention. And some of them, of water, are certainly beautiful, and beautifully made. But a Greek artist I know did wonder why Viola was so famous: "With all the expensive equipment he has, my grandmother could do the same." And for all those beautiful, near-abstract shots of water, there's still too much Jonathan Livingston Seagull for me.