Sunday, 26 September 2010

Tristan und Isolde, Philharmonia/Salonen, RFH

This multi-media production of Tristan und Isolde, the Tristan Project is a collaboration between conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Peter Sellars and the video artist Bill Viola. The video below gives you an idea of what it's about; part of the senior admin team kept a diary while it was on tour in mainland Europe which was published in The Guardian last week.

It's a strong evening, an all-immersing experience. In addition to a large screen above the orchestra onto which video pertaining to the action is projected, the entire hall was used with the singers appearing in aisles and boxes. The arrival in Cornwall at the end of act one had the chorus appearing in the balcony with the brass fanfare coming from the very back of the hall, as if the audience were being smothered in a great big (and very loud!) Cornish-cable-knit-jumper manhug. It was very involving and only heightened the impact of the stormy, narcotic Acts that followed.

Viola's tantric-slow video montage has a number of oddities which can jar - there's a certain amount of ritual à la Jodorowsky here. However, at crucial moments there are some wonderful images which do resonate with the story and its music. Principally perhaps is the echt-Viola image of lovers falling through water.

This picture corresponds to the most important single dramatic event of the opera, when the lovers have drunk the love-death potion. Like a number of images - or, I should say, sequences of images - it reminds me of similar sequences in other film. In this case, I can't shake the impertinent thought of Ewan McGregor's junkie searching for lost drugs in a Glaswegian toilet in Trainspotting:

Of course, this seems absurd but for two things. First Danny Boyle uses this comic surrealism in order to try and illustrate the edge-of-madness desperation that comes with drug dependency and the oblivion that its users are after (including one that suggests death itself). Secondly Bill Viola himself is working not to illustrate the action but to catalyse the expericence of it:
I knew from the start that I did not want the images to illustrate or represent the story directly. Instead I wanted to create an image world that existed in parallel to the action on the stage...
(from the programme notes)

The images of transformation or purging take in fire as well as water. Tristan's response to the extinguished beacon in act 2 is to march towards us heedless of a pyre in front of him. This is like the closing sequence of the Daft Punk-sponsored feature Electroma, in which the protagonist, bereft of his companion and denied wider social assimilation strides on defiantly in self-immolation:

In the love duet the video shows lovers casting themselves into the sea in a further attempt at oblivion. The closing scene of Jonathan Glazer's modern romantic mystery Birth comes to mind, in which a love-dazed Nicole Kidman searches for oblivion in the univiting waters off the American East Coast:

(incidentally, it's worth noting that the film has a memorable central sequence in which Kidman's character sits in a theatre listening to another piece by Wagner, the prelude to Act 1 of Die Walküre.)

Viola's particular stamp is really to do with the opulent time-frame in which he posits his ideas, rather than the images themselves. The breadth of this video work is what is so consonant with Wagner's opera. I felt the performance and the installation mutually benefitted one another.

Not that any performance of Tristan und Isolde at this level really needs embellishment. As the lovers, Violetta Urmana and Gary Lehmann are well matched but, crucially, also on the same page dramatically. They are enitrely convincing as the supernaturally enamoured couple. Brangäne and Kurwenal are taken by Scandinavian singers, Anne-Sofie von Otter and Jukka Rasilainen, both in highly polished performances. Of this second tier of casting though one watches slack-jawed at the artistry of our own Matthew Best. A cavernous, infinitely sagacious sound actually made something stirring from the Act 2 peroration of King Mark, which I often find ponderous.

Above all I really enjoyed the work of the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen. There's an urgency to get stuck into the detail of the music. Though the story arcs are vast and the (realist) action often static, musical argument and beauty is compressed into each phrase. The Philharmonia's touch is forensic but caressing, never clinical.

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