This Tristan is the brainchild of the brilliantly inventive director Peter Sellars, and was originally staged at the Paris Opéra in 2005. (We haven’t had any T und I in Toronto since 1987, so it was certainly high time for some more!) Embracing and expanding Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, Sellars added cinema to the operatic mix in a big way.
By comparison, the cast was reduced to a secondary role in a kind of concert performance that (even by Wagnerian standards) was static and minimal in its stage action.
What struck me most about the musical side of this performance was the emphasis placed on the lyrical, rather than the dramatic, aspects of Wagner’s score. In the hands of conductor Johannes Debus, the COC Orchestra gave a subtle, fluid, well-paced and well-balanced performance. (Kudos to Lesley Young for her splendid English Horn solo!) Similarly, the cast avoided bravura in favour of a kinder, gentler, interpretation.
All of this would have been quite lovely – except, as the opera progressed, the decision not to push the singers too hard seemed at least partly a response to the vocal abilities of the principals.
Act I went reasonably well. But in the heightened tensions of Act II it became apparent that neither our Tristan nor our Isolde had much of a dramatic edge to their voices. Sustained fortes seemed to lie outside their comfort zones: Wray displayed an unpleasant “hooty” quality, and Baba struggled unheroically with intonation issues whenever Wagner’s writing was forceful and chromatically challenging at the same time.
Wray’s and Baba’s limitations were underscored when Franz-Josef Selig, as King Marke, walked on stage and showed them how it’s done. His weighty and rock-solid bass voice came as a welcome relief, and injected some much-needed emotional impact into the production.
Act III fared better – although here it seemed that Wray and Baba stayed out of trouble by carefully pacing themselves. The end result was both musically and dramatically underwhelming.
As Kurwenal, Alan Held (who impressed audiences last year in the COC’s Florentine Tragedy / Gianni Schicchi double bill) used his clear, strong bass-baritone to fine effect. Soprano Daveda Karanas, as Brangäne, also gave a worthy performance.
All considered, it was an “interesting” production, and well worth seeing. But it fell short of the transcendent experience that Tristan und Isolde can be.
© Colin Eatock 2013