Your ears are hungry; let them feast on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In my attempt to review operas as entertainment for a newer and wider audience, I often write that opera is a wholly sensory experience. Peter Sellar’s debut with the Canadian Opera Company is no different. Last seen at the COC in 1987, this five hour presentation may not be one I recommend to the first time opera goer, but each act is divided generously with intermissions and it’s not a labour of love that keeps you in your seat, but a love of music.
There aren’t too many voices that could sustain singing for four and a half hours, so it is a delight to hear the unwavering voice of Ben Heppner fill the auditorium at length. For most of the third act, he is lying on his back and sounds as clear as if he were standing next to you. A feat not easily accomplished, to be sure. My favourite voice comes from the supporting role of King Marke of Cornwall, played by Franz-Josef Selig. The deep bass in his voice was strongest in the second act and conveyed an incredible amount of emotion.
Love and emotion run deep in this medieval and Celtic love story of forbidden and unstoppable love. Nowhere is this more evident than in Wagner’s score. Johannes Debus conducts Tristan und Isolde for the first time and even though his back is to the audience, I can imagine it wouldn’t be far off to picture a smile of triumph on his face the entire time.
The auricular sensory experience has been lauded at depth, however I am unsure whether I was over or under, visually stimulated. I was under stimulated by the purposefully understated set. Having only a single block to work with, the actors were restricted to their voices to convey emotion. However, five hours of limited movement on the stage did cause for attention to waver just a little bit.
I was over stimulated by the large screen that hung above the actors that paralleled the action on stage in each act. At times I was unsure where to set my gaze, between the actors, the screen and the surtitles. Perhaps because the actors on the screen did not resonate with me as the same people on stage, I felt a hard time connecting to what was happening on screen.
I was under stimulated by the costuming; a few too many on-the-nose nods to the nautical theme, and understanding the somber choice for monochrome darkness, overall the costuming choices were uninspired and made me think that’s just the way people showed up for work today.
What was most successful was the use of space off the stage. More often than not, most productions that try to use other parts of the theatre, do so without much reason, however the use of all the levels from the orchestra to Ring 5 fit the story and context very well.
From the orchestral prelude, I knew I was at Tristan und Isolde for the music. At times, you could close your eyes and transport yourself to a heartbreaking yet wonderful place of sheer euphonic bliss. It’s like a five-hour minibreak from the world and worth the price of admission.
Tristan und Isolde plays now through Sat. Feb. 23, 2013