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14.4.05

Tristan and Frontal Nudity

Other Newspaper Articles:


Caroline Alexander, Tristan et Isolde: Tiercés gagnants (Webthea, April 14)

Eric Dahan, Ecran total (Libération, April 14): "C'est le show chic et choc de saison" (It's the season's chic shocker show)

Julian Sykes, «Tristan» violemment zen (Le Temps, April 14): "Two shows in one: that's the gamble, both fecund and castrating, of this new Tristan. [...] If one were cynical, one would say that our two American geniuses [Viola and Sellars] have brought into Tristan the complete ideology of the Age of Aquarius."

Philippe Herlin, Vision intérieure (ConcertoNet.com, April 14)

Jacqueline Thuilleux, Entretien avec Esa-Pekka Salonen (Le Figaroscope, April 13)

Marie-Aude Roux, Mariage mitigé entre la scène et l'image pour "Tristan et Isolde" (Le Monde, April 13): "Although excellent, the singers sometimes give the impression that they are not involved. Wandering shadows, the myth of the cave, they have sloughed off their characters' skins for the clothing of simple mediators in the performance: interpreters in the truest sense, having passed from representation to celebration, from incarnation to scenic ritual."

Marie-Aude Roux, Sellars, Viola, Salonen, trio de feu à l'Opéra Bastille (Le Monde, April 11)

Interview with Bill Viola: Marie-Aude Roux, "Wagner aurait été attiré par le cinéma,la vidéo, les ordinateurs" (Le Monde, April 11)

Christian Merlin, Peter Sellars : «Un nectar d'amour» (Le Figaro, April 7)
As promised, here are some of the press reactions to the new production of Tristan und Isolde in Paris. From Jorg von Uthmann, Paris 'Tristan und Isolde' Has Video Striptease, No Sets (Bloomberg News, April 14):
Most of the images are in color, some are in black and white. Some relate to the action, others don't. There's water and fire as well as candles, trees, sunrises and sunsets. And there is frontal nudity. In the film, Tristan and Isolde are played by two actors who, during Isolde's curse in Act 1, slowly take off their clothes in a striptease presented as a purification ritual. In the end, when Tristan and Isolde ascend to heaven, their parts are taken over by acrobats. Though it may be breathtakingly naive, it's not boring. Anyway, the audience at the opening night loved it. Sellars keeps the business on the almost empty stage to a minimum, which given the limited histrionic talents of some opera singers is not necessarily a bad idea. During the Love Duet and Isolde's "Liebestod," they simply stand there, facing the public like in an oratorio.
Thanks to Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes for the link. Next, there is Alan Riding, In Pursuit of a Total Art, the Paris Opera Adds Video to 'Tristan und Isolde' (New York Times, April 14):
The true novelty lay in Mr. Viola's videos, which the artist said in an interview were inspired more by the text than the music. "I listened to it, various versions, for a month and I was stunned, I couldn't see anything," he said. So, no less than Wagner, he started with the myth, the story, the text. "The images tell the inner story in a similar way the music tells the inner story of the emotional and, I would say, spiritual life of these people." As a result, Mr. Viola shot most of the images before turning back to the music. "I realized the music is not useful to me while I'm shooting," he explained. "The music becomes absolutely necessary in the editing process. So music became for me the last stage. It was then that I tried to fit the images onto this pre-existing landscape that Mr. Wagner has beautifully provided us."

As such, the images echo rather than illustrate the story, with many sequences slowed to harmonize with the protracted development of the plot. For instance, it takes most of Act I, as well as a magic potion, for Tristan and Isolde to recognize they love each other. They enjoy their love in Act II, but it ends with Tristan stabbed by a follower of Isolde's new husband, King Marke. And Act III is devoted to Tristan's extended death and Isolde's decision to join him. Perhaps the central image used by Mr. Viola for Act I involves a split screen in which two tiny lights gradually take the form of a man and a woman, Tristan and Isolde's surrogates, who slowly strip and then are purified with water. The sequence ends with close-ups of their faces under water, as if they - like Tristan and Isolde who have drunk the love potion - have passed into a new reality. Two other figures then caress each other as they float under water.
Good stuff. There is a great photograph showing Ben Heppner and Waltraud Meier standing on the stage, dwarfed by the huge, shocking video image. They look like two tits on a bull. The production probably should have just played a recording. From an article in preview of the new production, by Peter Aspden, Pioneer of opera on a different plane (London Financial Times, April 11):
A medieval love story, filtered through German high romanticism, is being made over by a contemporary artist at the cutting edge of technological innovation. It is a heady mix, and it is no wonder that Viola is immersed in detail. "We are dealing with mere centimetres, or less, of adjustment on a screen that is 36 feet wide. Museums can do this, they totally get it. But here, everything has to happen so quickly." Speed is certainly not the essence of Viola's work. His high- resolution, ultra-slow-motion video pieces take their visual cues from medieval and Renaissance painting, and concern themselves with the great philosophical issues: love, life and death, and some of the points in between.

So, I ask, he must be getting on well with Wagner? "I knew early on I could never just illustrate this story. It would be as if a movie already existed, and I was asked to put a video on top of it. So my images had to be in a symbolic or metaphorical dimension, in this zone between heaven and earth, which is the traditional place of angels." Viola's theme for the set is of opposites coming together: "The universal story of male and female; light and dark; night and day; fire and water. They are always coming together, and then separating." In the section I saw in rehearsal, a young man and woman dive into a pool of water. It is a ravishing, romantic image, even without the music.
There were lots of reviews publishing in Francophone newspapers, like Nicolas Blanmont, Tristan avec Peter Sellars et Bill Viola (La Libre Belgique, April 14):
Below the screen, director Peter Sellars plays the sobriety card that we have not always associated with him. Costumed all in black (except in the third act where some gray nuances appear), the singers evolve with an economy of means impregnated with meaning. If gestures and movement are slow and minimal, they are never on the hieratic and stereotyped side of Wilson's direction, being here to the contrary filled with grace and naturalness. Sellars also plays ably with spacial relations, distancing choruses, certain instruments, and even a soloist or two at various points throughout the auditorium, as if to make the the immense Opéra Bastille worthy of its nickname, the Ship.

Sometimes, the stage complements the video perfectly, as in the "O sink hernieder Nacht" scene, which the couple sings on their knees, as if in prayer side by side, during which a turning camera shows the gradual transformation of their doubles on the screen, with the idea of substituting during this love duet "celestial bodies" (two new actors in the video) for the "terrestrial bodies." At other times, you have the impression that the two worlds, in three and two dimensions, are juxtaposed without really blending, as if a concert performance were accompanied by video images.
That is essentially what was performed in the preview in Los Angeles. I am also reminded of the Liebestod sequence in the movie Aria, directed by Franc Roddam, which I discussed here. Blanmont also mentions that the libretto lost much of its meaning to most viewers, since the video made following the supertitles nearly impossible.

Tristan und Isolde has seven performances at Opéra Bastille, in Paris, through May 4. (For those readers living in France, the opera will be broadcast on France Musiques on May 7, starting at 7 pm.) Valery Gergiev will conduct the production when it comes back to Paris in November, and according to Alan Riding, "it is to return in concert version to Disney Hall in March 2007 and to be staged in New York in April 2007."

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