Peter Sellars successfully updated the ancient magic in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Wagner had already modernised the medieval tale by focusing on the middle of the story, where the passion of the doomed lovers catches fire. Wagner treats the mythic origins of the romance as back-story recollected while passions are flaring. Sellars tightens that focus by stripping away sets, scenery and costumes. He restricts action and staging to bare gestures. The actors, often uniformed in black, are illuminated by rectangles of spotlight on a stage, bare except for a black box podium. All the scenic values are concentrated in the spectacular Bill Viola video backdropped on the gigantic screen behind them. The magic of the music holds it all together. The singers are splendid. The orchestra, conducted by Johannes Debus, are impeccable. Stationing live singers and musicians among the audience adds a surround-stereo dimension to the magic of the music. This performance rolled on, at a slow pace, for five mesmerizing hours, and sent me home with more energy than I came in with.

Melanie Diener as Isolde and Ben Heppner as Tristan in the COC’s Tristan und Isolde © Michael Cooper
Melanie Diener as Isolde and Ben Heppner as Tristan in the COC’s Tristan und Isolde
© Michael Cooper

In this production, the story serves the music. The moody overture rolls out waves of chords dominated by the dissonant “Tristan” motif. Ocean swells undulate on the giant screen. The sleeping figures on stage are Isolde and her servant Brangäne. They are crossing the Irish Sea on a ship commanded by Tristan, who is bringing the Irish princess, against her will, as a prize-bride for his uncle Marke, King of Cornwall. The twist is that Tristan and Isolde are in love but don’t really know it. Tristan is blinded by his love and loyalty to Marke (and by one other factor): he keeps aloof. She is furious about her bondage to a ritual marriage, and rages against Tristan for his compliance and his aloofness. The first act peels away her rage and his reserve. With the help of a love potion they sink into the truth of their passion. As this is happening, Bill Viola’s video goes split-screen showing a man and woman stripping naked, cleansing, then submerging together into deep waters. Consummation follows, but only as the ship is coming into port and King Marke is announced. From the music we understand that the lovers know they are about to enter a world of “unrelenting pain” from which death is the only deliverance. During the subsequent two acts, their fate is slowly, excruciatingly worked out.

In Act II, where the action revolves mostly around the lovers’ illicit rendez-vous in a moonlit orchard, the music is sublime, particularly the love-duets. It works, even though there is almost no chemistry between Margaret Jane Wray and Michael Baba. Their voices mingle as elements in a soundtrack to the compelling flow of video images that sometimes represents the onstage drama and sometimes comments on it. When the action resolves into a bold dramatic moment, as when King Marke confronts his beloved nephew and begs him to explain the betrayal, at the same time revealing old sexual business between them, the video fades to backdrop. Marke, wounded but without anger, is the character of greatest stature in this opera. The emotion in Franz-Josef Selig’s rich basso is the sound that most stays with me. The throbbing soprano of Daveda Karanas as the farseeing Brangäne always gave gold-standard satisfaction, especially when she was set like a solitary gem in the third-tier balcony centre aisle to warn Isolde that she was flirting with fire. Michael Baba’s dark, burnished tenor navigated the long, strenuous journey and retained enough power to let Tristan blaze in the his Act III scenes with the faithful Kurwenal. Alan Held, as the dying Tristan’s defender, dominated the stage with his stalwart baritone and rock-like posture. Margaret Jane Wray, the Isolde who in this version of the legend is allowed to live, gets the last word. As the video depicts Tristan’s corpse floating up from deep waters, Isolde feels him “rising up in the ocean of sound.” Her penetrating soprano sings of his “unequalled bliss”.

Part of the pleasure of this production comes from the liberty Peter Sellars enjoyed in the material. Instead of focusing on the women-as-chattel angle that animates the medieval courtly-love aspect of the relationship, Sellars seems to have gone with his radical discovery: Wagner’s interest in Buddhist teachings. Sellars writes in his notes to Act II that as the lovers’ rapture is peaking, “Brangäne’s warning voice peals across the night sky... expounding the Buddha’s four noble truths”. Well, that is a surpise! And Bill Viola more than picks up the hint and gives his video a totally New Age flavour. Odd as this may be, and much as it sacrifices the traditional magic of the European legend, I can safely say that this Tristan does “take everyone to their own private ocean with the shore nowhere in sight”. Out of sight. All right.