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“17” – Dortmund. Wagner - Bill Viola, Tristan & Isolde, Esa-Pekka Salonen / Philharmonia Orchestra

Just back from the Munich Philharmonic’s Season-opening Verdi-Mozart-Mahler, I took the next train to Dortmund to finally see what video artist Bill Viola has done to Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde. I had initially planned to see the production in London, a few days later, but that would have meant forgoing another interesting concert there… and thus Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmoina’s little continental tour with the Viola-production came in very handy. The Konzerthaus in Dortmund is a functional, no-frill place with a fine acoustic in the middle of tow, surrounded by kebab-places and assorted fast-food chains; a white, tall shoe-box with steeply inclining orchestra seating and several balconies.

available at AmazonR.Wagner, Tristan & Isolde,
D. Barenboim
Teldec / Warner

The Bill Viola video addition to Tristan was originally presented in LA in three concerts with the Philharmonic under Salonen, each featuring one act and music that relates in some way to Tristan—Berg’s Lyric Suite, Debussy’s Pelleas & Mélisande, Saariaho’s Cinq reflets. Since its second performance in Paris, Salonen has performed the work as a whole. He believes in it, that way—but I don’t understand why. The result is no longer a presumably compelling mix of acoustic and visual allusion to Tristan from all sides but a stage performance of Tristan with a silent movie running in the background, taking the eyes of the semi-dramatic delivery of the singers.

That’s not inherently bad, especially when even the half-hearted acting is as bad as that of Matthew Best (King Mark). But there are three hours of mix-and-match video, to content with: some of it painstakingly detailed sequences timed to refer to the music in subtle ways (Tristan’s eyes blinking at a specific point), some of it all-too-explicitly matching the story with visual cues (Isolde in Irish green, Tristan in English Red and White). Some of it as if taken from the shelves of stock footage; “Don’t I have some neat-o, out-of-focus ocean scenes from a recent trip to the Bay of Biscay? Ah, here it is. Let’s incorporate!” So we get ten minutes of that… only to eventually be led back to the high-gloss fire-burning-everywhere or water-pouring-from-bodies sequences that have definite visual appeal, and would have more, still, if they didn’t all overstay their welcome. The methods—Bill Viola likes to run sequences backwards or upside down, add post production grain, and use obviously fake ‘nuit américaine’ scenes—become too obvious too soon; most scenes look as if they could have been filmed in his backyard pool with one savvy lighting crew and a heavy-duty garden hose. What Peter Sellars—credited as “artistic collaborator”—did at all, staging-wise, can’t be detected by the outside observer.

In front of all that, the singers—struggling only with the loud orchestra—managed to acquit themselves quite nicely: Violetta Urmana’s Isolde especially, but also Gary Lehman’s Tristan, a baritone successfully stretched to the heights of a heroic tenor. He might have slurred a bit by the time his ‘Liebestod’ segment came around in the second act, but saving best for last, he still attacked his part with vigor late in Act III. Anne Sofie von Otter really is more suitable to Grieg songs than Brangäne, but then again the aged quality of her voice wasn’t necessarily inappropriate for the role. Matthew Best has a talent for dramatically unsuitable poses and is best enjoyed with open ears and closed eyes; Jukka Rasilainen voiced Kurwenal impeccably-unmemorably, and with Stephen Gadd a former Operalia-finalist (1993) was on stage as a solid Melot. The Symphonic Chorus of the Dortmund Konzerthaus Choral Academy—long name, brief appearance—sang their Act I bit well, but musically this Tristan was remarkable really only (or mainly) for the gorgeous, massive, sonorous sound form the Philharmonia Orchestra. Certainly loud, but occasionally detailed and always impressive, Tristan was blared about in glorious, saturated colors and, smoothly guided through the score by Salonen. Wagner-Salonen-Philharmonia is a good combination, indeed. As for Bill Viola’s take: Good to have seen and good to know that one need not see it again.

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