sat 18/11/2017

Sellars and Viola's Tristan und Isolde, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Sellars and Viola's Tristan und Isolde, Royal Festival Hall

Sellars and Viola's Tristan und Isolde, Royal Festival Hall

Salonen's conducting and Viola's videos elevate the philosophy of Tristan

'Two or three of Viola's ideas were quite literally breathtaking. The final levitation was perhaps the most extraordinary of the lot'

People always overlook how much of a hippie Richard Wagner was intellectually. His philosophical stance differs little from that of Neil from The Young Ones. It's a side of Wagner you can't get away from in Tristan und Isolde, with its endless railing against temporal realities and its search for universal oneness - yeah man, oneness. And it was doubly impossible to avoid these stoner-like thoughts last night at the Philharmonia Orchestra's Royal Festival Hall performance, where Bill Viola's videos - a typically elemental smorgasbord, with Adam and Eve types dressed in nappies - offered up what, at times, looked like home videos from Waco.

But if some of the video fell on the wrong side of the New Age line, and other parts of it fell a bit too chicly on the wrong side of the fashion-ad line, most of it, say 90 per cent, had a terrific aesthetic substance. Viola is a great film technician. So images of sea, woods, dawns, ships, couples are never just that. However close he comes to cliché, he just manages to tack away at the last minute. Images are bled, over-exposed, slowed down or pixilated. Like the ill-fated couple, there is never a comfortable middle way. Texture, colour, light, even the screen (which is flipped portrait-wise for the final act) are all carefully manipulated.

All of which surprised me. I've always been, at best, underwhelmed, at worst, angered by Viola's gallery work. And yet this potpourri accompanying Tristan - with plenty of fire and water, slow-motioning, close-ups and a few tears - is little more than a greatest-hits DVD of this gallery work. But somehow the lack in these images when viewed on their own vanishes when in conversation with Tristan. In fact, in the many magical images of the sea, of the deepest recesses of woods, of one of those mighty modern ships on a dark horizon, one often got to a more profound, more haunting truth than one would have ever got from just listening to the didactic teenage sentiments of the libretto, whose brazenly immoral death fixation still rather offends my sensibilities.

It certainly provided a perfect template for future multimedia collaborations. As did the ideas from Peter Sellars provide a perfect template for future semi-stagers, with its full utilisation of every last nook and cranny of the HMS Royal Festival Hall. I have never felt more like I was on a ship in a performance of Tristan. Joshua Ellicott's Sailor lets out his opening sighs high up from a box as if up a mast; the choir strikes up their stentorian voices from behind and above as if on deck. The surround sound creates a oneness of sorts. Esa-Pekka Salonen had to conduct in the round.

He did it well. The Philharmonia Orchestra never once let him down. It was a lustrous sound they produced together, one that wasn't just exciting but also delicate. There was restraint where necessary, so that the more intimate events shone. Both leads, Violeta Urmana's Isolde and Gary Lehman's Tristan, shone, too. Urmana is a classy act: still, concentrated, powerful, unwavering in quality and tone to the end. By Act Three, Lehman had run out of the quality puff that had been so evident at the start, and in his death throes adopted a comically gormless face. Matthew Best's King Marke was astoundingly fine, Anne Sofie von Otter's Brangäne less so, over-agitated in manner and mouth.

But this production (which was fully staged in Paris in 2005) sees video collaboration come of age. In dramatic conception and in co-ordination with the plot, two or three of Viola's ideas were quite literally breathtaking. The final levitation was perhaps the most extraordinary of the lot. There is a pretentiousness in Viola's images, for sure, and at times a nauseating obsession with New Age symbolism. But none of it is any worse than the pretentiousness of the libretto. And anything that deflects our attention from the pretentious immoralities of the libretto and elevates the situation to a plane in which you can relate to the characters and the basic concepts hidden amid the philisophical grand-standing is a good thing in my book.

There is a pretentiousness in Viola's images, for sure. But none of it is any worse than the pretentiousness of the libretto

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Comments

"And anything that deflects our attention from the pretentious immoralities of the libretto and elevates the situation to a plane in which you can relate to the characters and the basic concepts hidden amid the philisophical grand-standing is a good thing in my book." I am not sure I understand this sentence. I understand that you find the work immoral. I also understand that you find the work pretentious. I am not sure what situation you wish to elevate. Nor can I understand how we are to relate to the characters if we are distracted from what they are singing (the libretto). Perhaps this is a work you dont really understand? I know I find it very hard to grasp after nearly 30 years of listening to it.

I'm afraid I think I understand the work all too well. But yes maybe that last sentence wasn't entirely clear. What I was grasping at was that Viola's images focuses our minds on the simple, slender bare bones of the story and not the Schopenhauerian fat.

Thank you for your reply I dont agree with you. The programme notes make it clear that Viola wanted to eschew any narrative elements in his video. He was only partly successful in this because we were presented with images of sea, woods, torches and light which at the very least alluded to the plot in a direct way. He did not, however, present anything that I recognise as the "simple, slender bare bones of the story". I just dont understand what you mean by "Schopenhauerian fat". I puzzled over it and can only think you believe that somehow Wagner added philosophical reflection in an artificial way which makes it an optional extra instead of an integral part of the text. I would also greatly appreciate it if you could give some examples of what you mean by the "didactic teenage sentiments of the libretto".

Dude, what are you, like, a failed comedian? You think any Wagner fan's gonna titter at these little jibes? Get some respect for the content before attending. The Schopenhauer stuff ain't fat, it's the heart of it. If you have to go around it in order to enjoy the opera, then your review is automatically fail. And you come across in the whole thing as a smirker and a scoffer. I'm glad I don't know you. You'd be bad company at one of these things. A fail, bro.

The production has changed since 2005, as I hope my perceptions are also changing. The choir, soloists and orchestra performing at variable positions in BSH perfect accoustic, the huge visual screen all enhance a feeling of immersion in the work. I enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with different aspects, if everything is static my mind tends to wander.

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