In December 2005 I went to Paris to attend a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Even though I’m an opera fan I primarily went for professional reasons since I study art history and this production had scenography by American video artist Bill Viola. I’m very fascinated by his oeuvre and when he joined his work with the opera I had to witness it.
Fire and water are central elements in many of Viola’s works (symbolising among other things purification) and also the scenography of Tristan und Isolde was marked by this preference.
Video sequences were projected on a large screen of variable size and the singers were moving beneath the screen in a dark room defined only by squared fields of light on the floor and a rectangular podium functioning as ship, bed, bench etc. All very minimalist. The visual side of the production was thus primarily focused on the projections.
On the screen you saw both narrative sequences showing Tristan and Isolde’s alter egos, sequences showing nature, and another pair of alter egos who in grainy images almost dissolved in abstraction were moving through dark woods, on a shore and out into the sea.
So all in all three couples. The singers, present, and on the screen the earthly and the heavenly Tristans and Isoldes (according to the programme). The earthly couple went through a ritual purification in several parts. Viola often works in extreme slow motion or just in slow, thorough movements. In this case you saw Tristan and Isolde (the screen was divided in two parts) walk slowly towards two portals in the foreground. After that (still in separate spaces) they undressed and were soaked in water by their servants. Then they bent over a bowl of mirror like water (the camera was in the water looking up at their faces) and they put their faces into the water thus breaking the serene surface. This took place while they, in the opera, were drinking the love potion. Later on they finally shared space standing quiet looking each other into the eye while the camera circled around them. This was, in excerpts, the very finish-like part of Violas work where lighting and picture quality were perfect.
Then in the 2nd act we saw a sunset through dark tree trunks followed by two passages with fire – one showing Tristan walking towards a bonfire and passing through it, and one showing Isolde slowly lighting oil lamps in a large catholic lamp holder.
After this the film continued to the heavenly Tristan and Isolde running through forests hand in hand, not afraid but (it seemed to me) leaving rules and laws moving towards something new. By the edge of the forest they met cliffs and a beach and together they went into the water where they disappeared. These images were grainy and seemed recorded with a night camera showing only black, white and greenish nuances. When Tristan and Isolde emerged from the forest their bodies were strongly illuminated silhouettes.
After this everything went even more abstract. A body seemed to be floating in water that sometimes was almost like fire (similar to Fire Birth in the piece Going Forth by Day for those who know what I’m talking about). You saw waves breaking at a rocky coast. Only at the very end you saw sharp images of a man mirroring the Tristan on stage lying on a podium. After a span of time water started dripping onto him and slowly the drops became a deluge in which the body imperceptibly dissolved. This was very similar to the piece The Crossing.
For those not knowing Bill Viola this may all seem very abstract but when you know his works a large part of the sequences were typical. I even think the new inventions had a strong connection with pieces from his youth having the same grainy, handheld qualities and rejecting a narrative.
I largely thought the production was successful and appeared as a homage to Wagner’s ideas of Gesamtkunstwerk. Art, music and acting were truly combined and even though Wagner’s libretto, Violas videos and Peter Sellars’ direction progressed very slowly I often had a hard time choosing where to focus my attention.
I perceived Tristan and Isolde in the videos as images of the soul and that increased my understanding of the characters. It became spiritual and existential in a beautiful and simple way never touching on cliché. This I think characterises a good deal of Viola’s works.
Seen as a part of Bill Viola’s oeuvre I think the videos were mostly on level, but sometimes it all seemed a bit easy especially in the very abstract sequences. Perceived as scenography they worked very well with the stage action though, turning my attention to the singers when that was needed. This happened i.e. when King Marke found the lovers and when Melot stabbed Tristan.
As mentioned before the direction of the singers was minimalist. It was as if Peter Sellars had chosen to let the singers step back to give visual space to the videos. It wasn’t an absent direction but a direction shaved down to almost ritual movements between fields of light on the floor. It was clear that Viola and Sellars know each other well and that they had peacefully and unselfishly left each other space in a production that gave the impression of being the work of one musical and artistic brain. It was like swimming in a mix of sound and image where the borders between body and surroundings, my soul and the souls of Tristan and Isolde were dissolved. It was a spiritual experience beyond religion and into a nucleus common for all individuals. Simple and beautiful.
The singers were unknown to me but I especially lost my heart to the only 26-year-old Ekaterina Gubanova who portrayed Brangäne. It was a beautiful and strong interpretation that made me cry several times.
The orchestra of the Opera of the Bastille played perfectly with an impressive solo feeling under the baton of Valery Gergiev.
As said before this was one big Gesamtkunstwerk unfolding before my eyes and ears and I feel very incompetent in describing it. This was my humble attempt. I’m still hoping for the production to appear in dvd. Until then here are some links: