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10.12.04

Viola's Tristan

Following up on Bill Viola's work on the new production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (see my post from December 1), some reviews are in. (I hope that the anonymous commenter on my earlier post writes some more about the production.) From Bernard Holland's review (A 'Tristan' Served Up in Digestible Helpings, December 7) for the New York Times:

Listeners are given more time to digest, but now digestion is threatened by sheer volume. An awful lot is going on at the same time. Mr. Viola's imagery is thoughtful, and his use of water—lovers swimming beneath its surface, heavy surf breaking to the rhythms of Wagner's music and water's fusion with fire at the end—is arresting. Musical time operates at a slower rate than clock time; these glacial moving pictures projected on a screen understand that well.

The ruminations on bleak forests and rock faces, the solemn striptease by Mr. Viola's surrogate lovers and especially the grainy images of freighters sailing by night are all lovely metaphors, but being metaphors, they distract us. A metaphor is a transaction: "this refers to that." The transaction diverts us from Wagner's thread. This visual dimension to "Tristan" acts like the annotations in the margins of a book: helpful observations but not essential ones. Operating in time-driven synchronization with theater and music in motion, they crowd out what is essential. More beauty ends up being less beauty.
From Valerie Scher's review (Grand hall and music, but so-so 'Project', December 6) for the San Diego Union Tribune:
No one expected elaborate sets, costumes or props, of course. This is the semi-staged version, not the complete production that Salonen will conduct and Sellars will direct in spring at Paris National Opera. Still, couldn't Sellars have done more to enliven the staging? After all, he's known as a brilliant iconoclast who updated Mozart to New York's Trump Tower and made Don Giovanni go to hell in a city sewer. Yet his response to the opening act of the philharmonic's "Tristan" was, at best, modestly innovative. He experimented with placing singers around the hall. It was enjoyable to hear the men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale even if one couldn't see them. [...]

Meanwhile, Viola's sometimes tedious video was projected on large screens near smaller screens containing English translations of the German text. The ocean imagery suggested Act I's setting on a ship making its way to Cornwall, where Isolde was to marry Tristan's uncle. Mostly, there were slow-moving and highly symbolic images of actors portraying Tristan and Isolde as they shed their clothes and engaged in mysterious watery rituals.
Watery rituals? Why am I reminded of that line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail? "Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony."

You can read what Bill Viola has to say about the production, too.

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