First seen at the Opéra Bastille in 2005, Peter Sellars’s staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde has become famous for the projection of videos by Bill Viola, while the action takes place in a dark setting with no props or other pieces of scenery. It is true that the videos might be an efficient tool to create atmosphere, on showing exquisite images of the ocean or woods etc, but the fact is that they can also be distracting while depicting actors lighting candles, walking or just getting naked. They can also be unnecessary as showing images of fire when the libretto has words like “ardor”, for example. In any case, I did not feel that they highlight the action itself, which is poorly lit and in the end most people are just following the video presentation.
And the truth is that the performance seriously needed atmosphere. The Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris is not truly noble-sounding – wind instruments are not very distinctive and the sound of its string is not full, rich and supple as one would like to hear in a Wagner opera. It does not spoil the fun, but a stronger-willed conductor than Semyon Bychkov would be of great help in that department. Most people point out the fact that he tends to opt for slow tempi, but in his defense I would say that he knows when some animation is needed and more or less knows how to make such transitions work. The problem, however, is the absence of a structural backbone. Act I, for example, seemed incoherent and rather loose – even the dramatic tension seemed to escape through the cracks of a poorly structured reading. In act II, truth be said, Bychkov’s justifiable main concern was to help his soloists through the difficult writing – only the final act would benefit from a palpable sense of development, although the Liebestod would prove to be quite tame.
The reader might be asking him or herself if I am not going to describe the positive effect Waltraud Meier had on the proceedings. Those who have seen her video from La Scala know how she can electrify a performance, but, alas, that would not be the case here. Probably because she might be still recovering from the illness that troubled her during the first evening in this run of performances, this admirable German mezzo-soprano seemed overcareful in the first act. She still seemed mistress of the situation then, pouring forth gleaming tone and hitting firm if somewhat clipped top notes. One may remember more gripping accounts of the narration and curse by this singer, but she still has no rivals in her know-how of mood-shifting through tone colouring and perfect diction. Unfortunately, act II and III were mostly a matter of surviving to the end. There were long stretches of inaudibility, imprecise pitch and other needs for adaptation, requiring a lot of help from the conductor, to the loss of orchestral tonal refulgence.
On the other hand, Clifton Forbis was in extremely healthy voice. Although his tenor is basically throaty, he effortlessly produces powerful notes at the top of this role’s range. His act III monologues were not necessarily subtle, but particularly intense and, it is never enough to say that, reliable. Ekaterina Gubanova could be a refreshing Brangäne – she has a young-sounding yet rich and velvety mezzo and is at ease with Wagnerian style, but the very velvetiness which made her act II calls from the watchtower ethereal did not help her to pierce through heavy orchestration. Alexander Marco-Buhrmester was a particularly sensitive Kurwenal, exploring softer dynamics than most exponents of this role, but Franz-Josef Selig must be singled out for his King Marke – he used his chocolate-coloured bass with Lieder-singing expressiveness and good taste.