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23.2.05

Tristan in Geneva

When I win the Powerball, I will fly around the world watching opera. The Grand Théâtre de Genève is mounting a new production of Tristan und Isolde right now. In a review (Magistral "Tristan und Isolde" de Wagner par Olivier Py, February 15) for Le Monde, Marie-Aude Roux had the goods (my translation):

The French director Olivier Py has created a new production of Wagner's Tristan, the first in 20 years at the Geneva Opera. A daring risk for a great success: the French director, author, and actor has created a masterful version of Wagner's masterpiece, artistic and extremely musical, intelligent and very sensitive. A Tristan pulled by strings made greater by Pierre-André Weits's ingenious sets, Olivier Py's lighting, and a successful direction of acting. All of that was seen throughout the first act, with the slow passage of the lovers' "night ship," from the prow to the stern, a boat flanked by shining black sails, a labyrinth of metal stairways and railings marked with neon, going out into the inexorable. The staging is a metaphor for Wagner's unending melody, from a time of the soul suspended between life and death, from Tristan and Isolde's unsated desire resolving in the third act in the transfiguration of the Liebestod.

In the second act, the love duo goes in exaltation from room to room: a series from a black for waiting then to a white explosion of desire, a bedroom licked by flames, then to a room mute with rubble waiting for death, finally one walled up like a cave. Until the appearance of King Marke, the real husband in a long fur coat à la Visconti, somewhere between Ludwig and Death in Venice, which makes one think that he did not share Isolde's bed for reasons other than his shyness.
On the same production, I read Francis Carlin's review (Tristan und Isolde, Grand Théâtre, Geneva, February 16) for the London Financial Times:
Faced with Wagner's marathon symphonic poem with voices, it is easy to see why producers are panicked into hyperactivity. Olivier Py's new staging does just that. Wagner whittled down the characters to the bare minimum, to present an unadulterated account of doomed passion. Py, a promising, provocative talent in France but on this evidence short on maturity and focus, elects to flood the stage, literally in act three, with supernumeraries and hackneyed symbolism that feeds on Shakespeare and Arthurian legend. As the production gags on a surfeit of imagination, you find yourself filling in an imaginary multiple-choice list, ticking off the useful and crossing out the padding. So it's yes to Py's use of perspective, his genuinely exciting coups de théâtre and the brilliant slide show of rooms in the second act that symbolise the lovers' psychological states. But it's definitely no to the idiot's guide to Tristan's past where Isolde paints Tantris on to the corrugated sheeting of the ship, and the kung-fu combats in the limb-threatening puddle in Tristan's castle.
There was also a review by Christian Merlin (Voyage au coeur de l'âme wagnérienne, February 15) for Le Figaro (my translation):
With his faithful designer Pierre-André Weitz, [Olivier Py] has imagined a fascinating system, which demonstrates a great illusionist's talent. The boat of the first act, an immense destroyer of sheet metal and iron, advances imperceptibly during the whole course of the act, creating a kind of slowness that is the definition of Wagnerian time: his architecture of narrow hallways, stairways, and metallic bridges changes constantly with each look, and if you did not know that the machinists were busy off stage, you would swear that the sets are miles long. This skill would be in vain if the design were not always being used to make clear the relationships between the characters, especially by their placement in space.

The same optical illusion is in the second act. The lovers do not come together in gardens, but in a little bedroom seen in cutaway, like the mansions of medieval theater. During the 45 minutes of the love duet, which so many directors do not know what to do with, the bedroom begins to slide off to the right by itself and give way to another one, and then another, each one slightly different: Tristan and Isolde pass from one to the next, which allows us to see the rooms like stages through which they are passing. Black, white, enflamed, walled, filled with earth, the bedroom becomes the symbolic reflection of their interior state, which gives a rhythm and coherence to a scene in which it is so easy to lose one's place.

The third act is dominated by water, which fills the stage. At the moment where Tristan, in his palace on steel pilings before an infinite perspective, recalls his childhood during a monologue that seems like a psychoanalytic session (before that existed), a little child, a very beautiful woman, and a knight in armor come out of the water and go back into it: the young Tristan, his mother, and his father are literally extracted from the maternal liquid before going back into it. What a beautiful idea, also, to integrate into the action the musician playing the English horn, whose playing gives Tristan the key to his existence: present on the stage like a midwife of souls, oboist Sylvain Lombard creates a triumph, in what is perhaps the most beautiful page in the score.
Didier van Moere also reviewed the production (Le Tristan ténébreux d’Olivier Py, February 10) for ConcertoNet.com. You can look through these pictures of the production.

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