Madrid’s opera house bade farewell to 2013 with a fairly contested production of L’elisir d’amore (which Bachtrack review is here). The whims of destiny, and perhaps sheer convenience, have dictated that the opening production of this year, Tristan und Isolde – whose love potion Donizetti used in a diametrically different way as the basis of his opera buffa – falls in the hands of the same music director. Marc Piollet stepped in at the last minute to replace Teodor Currentzis, after the latter cancelled his commitment due to health problems.

© Javier del Real
© Javier del Real
This production was first seen at the Opéra de Paris almost a decade ago, and it has since triggered enthusiasm in its several iterations across Europe and beyond. The staging is entirely dominated by Bill Viola’s mesmerising images, which prove a fitting complement to Wagner’s slow-motion cosmos. Tristan and Isolde both see their story unfold – and unravel – in a huge screen behind them. Descriptive images, metaphorical images, reversed images, images upside-down, addictive images. Many, seemingly, biographical images too, if we are to follow the thread of Viola’s childhood. When he was six, he has recounted, he fell off a raft and went right to the bottom of a lake. Although he nearly drowned, his recollection of the experience is one of amazement at the beauty he saw in the underwater world. The ever-presence of water in his work might be his quest to go back to that moment that forever marked his life.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that what was presumably conceived as the background does in fact become the foreground. Director Peter Sellars seems to encourage – or at least acknowledge – this, choosing to do as little as possible with the cast and staging. A black box acts as the ship, the lovers’ bed and the deadly shrine. All characters are dressed in black – except in the last act – and consequently disappear against the dark setting, their moves reduced to the minimum. There are only a few moments on the real stage that appeal more than what we watch on the screen. So essentially, this production would have largely worked as a concert version. Yet, there are moments when the characters make an enormous difference.

Violeta Urmana, a rising presence at the Teatro Real, appears before us as the tormented Isolde. She might not be a natural Wagnerian voice, but she is aware of her own abilities and uses them smartly. Only her occasionally excessive vibrato and a slight stridency of her high notes betray her at times, but she takes on the weight that holds the production together and drives it to the end. Sadly, she does not find a suitable partner in her Tristan. Robert Dean Smith has played this and other Wagnerian roles in many theatres around the globe, a favourite being his Met debut with Deborah Voigt and under the baton of James Levine. It might be precisely his intense agenda that has taken its toll. His first act sounds fresh initially, yet tiredness quickly builds up; by the second act his voice is strained, and he still has to get through his monumental intervention in the third. He does, and there are no broken notes. But there is a voice begging for some lemon and honey, and possibly a holiday.

© Javier del Real
© Javier del Real
And then there is Franz-Josef Selig, who single-handedly brings the whole production to an entirely different level. His first, triumphant entry, via the hallway and wrapped by a choir placed around the box seats, proves a good omen. The exceptional King Marke he delivers is an awakening to what the Wagnerian universe really is about. His “Mir dies? Dies, Tristan, mir?” in the second act, where he realises his nephew – his knight, his loyal friend, the son he never had – has betrayed him, shows the wounds of a man who has lost all hope. His impeccable phrasing is beautifully matched by a steady dawn in a forested landscape. Suddenly, from our seats, it all makes febrile sense. The love between Tristan and Isolde is too big for the living world to fathom.

This production will be back in Paris this spring, with Philippe Jordan conducting pretty much the same cast, bar some exceptions. Let’s hope a change in musical direction strengthens what we heard in Madrid. For now, the image of Tristan transcending the living world by being lifted to eternity through water pouring up is probably still haunting many.