TristanRichard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Opéra de Lyon | Kirill Petrenko, Àlex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus, Clifton Forbis, Ann Petersen, Christof Fischesser, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Nabil Suliman, Stella Grigorian, Viktor Antipenko, Laurent Labardesque | Lyon, France - June 22, 2011

As someone who is not entirely convinced by the opera productions of the experimental Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus – which in my experience tend to strive towards spectacle and concept (usually a rather ridiculous one) over fittingness, let alone fidelity, to an opera – I was a little concerned that Àlex Ollé’s talk of taking a symbolic view of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for this new production at the Opéra de Lyon since “a descriptive or figurative staging would make no sense”.  It’s true that the themes of the opera are internalised and conceptual in nature, but the idea of two of opera’s most famous lovers hanging suspended from wires -as is often the case in La Fura dels Baus productions - floating above the mundane reality below, was a worrying prospect. Surprisingly then, particularly since the rather minimalist stage directions for Tristan und Isolde allows for some extreme interpretations, it turned out this particular production is surprisingly restrained and almost traditional, saving its spectacle effectively for those moments where the romantic nature of the opera really merits those special effects.

Tristan und Isolde is indeed rather straightforward and single minded in the purity of its romantic notion of love, but that doesn’t mean that the opera is in any way rational or easily defined. It’s littered with a richness of symbolism, conceptual imagery and contradictory elements relating to day and night, light and dark, to questions of time and distance, to life and death, all of which simultaneously define the nature of love while at the same time acknowledging its contradictions, its indefinability and its irrationality. Any attempt to take in all these allusions would result in a cluttered concept (it’s to Wagner’s credit and genius that this isn’t the case with the opera itself, propelled as it is by its own inner musical force and coherence), and, in my experience, it wouldn’t be beyond La Fura to attempt to do just that, and add a few of their own half-baked concepts as well. Instead, and to my pleasant surprise, Àlex Ollé focusses, as you must, on one aspect of the opera and builts the concept around that. In this case, it is the romantic tug and persuasion of the moon, whose gravitational force affects not only the tides, but is believed by many to affect human moods, behaviours and irrationality in people, as well as hold an irresistible romantic presence.

Tristan

Act 1 then makes use of a basic platform to represent the deck of the ship which is transporting Isolde from Ireland to Cornwall where she will be married to King Marke, with computer generated projections of the rolling sea on a screen behind. The platform revolves 360°, very slowly in one turn over the course of the First Act, while the moon appears as a blurred but bright sphere that solidifies in clarity as the nature of the relationship between Isolde and Tristan itself becomes clear. Superbly realised by the mood, the staging and the lighting, the emotional turmoil that each of them go through up to the moment of this realisation is reflected also in the motion of the waves, stormy at first, crashing against each other, until the moment of utter calm and abandonment arrives when they give themselves up to an expected death that does not come, but instead frees them of their inhibitions.

The moon becomes a concave sphere in Act 2 that stands for King Marke’s Cornwall, within which Tristan and Isolde’s love is trapped, as if within its own bubble. The contrast of darkness and light – the omnipresent imagery within the libretto for the Second Act – is reflected in the lighting and shifting shadows of trees that weave complex forms, building up to the moment when the burning desire within the protagonists explodes, and is expressed through a magnificent ring of fire effect. The illusory nature of their protective bubble collapses again through some fine projections that show the spherical edifice crumbling around them, as King Marke and his men discover the infidelity of his wife and his most trusted companion. For Act 3, this sphere is reversed, becomes convex, suggesting Tristan’s expulsion from the protective curve of Isolde and King Marke’s land, the desolation of the moon projected upon it evoking Tristan’s mood and state of mind, up until the moment that an extraordinarily effective glow of golden light is beamed through it at the consummation of their life in the death at the ‘Liebestod‘.

The singing was wonderful, particularly from Ann Petersen, who has all the necessary strength in her voice, but also a wonderful creamy tone that is deeply attractive, particularly for this role. (She will be singing Isolde for the Welsh National Opera at Cardiff in 2012, so look out for that). Clifton Forbis also has an attractive tone to his tenor voice, and although not always up to the level of Petersen, has all the necessary conviction where it counts. The two worked well together in this respect, and Forbis certainly made Tristan’s torment in Act 3 real and fully felt. The overall strength of the opera was rounded out by solid performances from Stella Grigorian’s Bragäne, Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Kurwenal and Christof Fischesser’s King Marke, the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon conducted well by Kirill Petrenko. Although solid and impressive on all fronts, in the performance and in the appropriate tone found throughout in the staging, ultimately for me however the production didn’t quite have the full emotional force or find that spark of magic that lies at the heart of Tristan und Isolde. A wonderful production nonetheless, visually imaginative and deeply involving in a way that certainly held the audience in its thrall.