Opéra National de Paris 2022-23 Review: Tristan und Isolde
A Mediocre Performance Featuring the Jeering & Heckling of One Specific ArtistBy João Marcos Copertino
This review is for the performance on Jan. 17, 2023.
Having lived in Paris for a while, I can say I have more than once seen a stage director booed. Once, a conductor was vaguely disproved of by few operagoers.
But until tonight, I have never seen a soprano booed so virulently as Parisians jeered Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Isolde. Why did that happen?
Well, before we go into any debate on what musically—and scenically—did not work, some few paragraphs must be spent on Peter Sellars and Bill Viola’s grandiloquent staging.
Sellars’ “Tristan” has been around for almost two decades, and it is still not for everybody. It is not a case of “love or hate,” but rather “love or be indifferent.” Sellars does not afflict the audience with vulgarities, but he does push the theatrical limits of Wagner’s dramatic possibilities.
It is not uncommon to hear that the experience of going to the theater in Bayreuth Festival emulates the cinema. Of course, Wagner never saw the rise of the seventh art. However, his opera house anticipated some of the core elements of modern cinema-going: in Bayreuth one cannot see the orchestral pit, there are no boxes, and the architecture has little ornamentation. Attention must be centered on the stage.
Sellars’s “Tristan und Isolde” engages that form of attention by making the center of his stage a film projection by visual artist Bill Viola. This “Tristan” is a tribute to this cinematic potential of Wagner—with a screen that emanates light—, while having also the theatrical drama of singers performing in black costumes against a mostly black scenario. On stage throughout the production, then, there is a continuous tension between the theatrical and the cinematic. While in the theatrical mode, the singers—i.e. actors—have full control of their bodies, the cinematic information shows different bodies that are continuously manipulated by the camera and editing (sharp editing and a ubiquitous use of slow-motion and graininess). In the end, the silver screen changes its shape—as if cinema has changed—, and the theater prevails with few gestures.
To the audience, this cinematic/theatrical battle can be both under- and overwhelming. Much of the dramatic action is lost—can “Tristan” be that dramatic, though? Some moments in the staging are extremely beautiful. The musical interventions from outside the stage force us to look away from the screen/stage and trigger our ears to listen to sounds produced in the audience, next to us, and behind us.
And the end of the first act had what was, in my opinion, one of the most striking scenic movements that I have ever seen in an Opera stage. Sellars turns all the lights in the auditorium, inviting us to immerse ourselves in the ocean of “Tristan und Isolde’s” love. As I said before, it is not a staging that will please everybody, but this mere critic really enjoyed it.
A Lot of Problems
Musically, though, the night had many problems.
Before going to the specifics of each singer, some things must be said. Most—but not all—of the singers were properly cast to their repertoire, which is already a win in such an uneven season at the Opéra National de Paris. The singers, nevertheless, showed difficulties in phrasing their parts musically in at least one of the acts that they sung—with the exception of Eric Owens. They seemed more concerned with being heard than with registering the vocal dynamics. In the first act—which was probably the less disappointing musically—often I heard the same forte dynamic in all phrases and musical syllables. It made Wagner’s music less exciting than it could be. When the problem is so generalized, the fault must lie with the conductor and a vocal preparation that did a less than optimal job in rehearsal.
Dudamel delivered a solid—but not great—performance of Wagner. The orchestra did sound better than usual, and it did not cover the singers as they often do. There were, however, problems in tuning in the brass section, especially in the third act. And the prelude was not an intense musical journey as it often can be. Sellars’ staging requires much moving of the orchestra throughout the opera house, so the conductor’s job is difficult—and Wagner’s score is certainly not easy.
Eric Owens was, by far, the best performer of the night. His King Mark was extremely musical, carrying lines that stressed the fragility of the character—he was the exception to the cast’s musical issues. His voice is extremely well-projected and uniformed in all registers. It is wonderful how his vibrato is proper to the role—it is not wide, but efficient in bringing a certain maturity to the character and highlighting the Owens’s affination quality.
Scenically, in such a dry staging, Owens’ slow gestures brought tenderness and created a sense of masculinity and brotherhood that is lost nowadays. Owens also showed deep connection with the orchestra, as if his voice commented on what was being played in the pit. His intervention in the second act was the most beautiful moment in the night.
Ryan Speedo Green has huge potent voice, and his Kurwenal grew a lot during the night. His voice is, as Owens, uniform in all registers. But opposite to Mark, Green’s Kurwenal was extremely youthful. The American bass-baritone does not have a strong vibrato, what enables him to sing his part bringing much attention to the text. His upper-middle register is particularly beautiful and resonant. While in the first act, like most of the singers, he sang solidly, but not exceptionally, his presence and voice in the third act was impressive. Scenically, he went deeper in trying to invigorate his beloved Tristan. I am looking forward to hearing him and Owens in the Met’s upcoming opera “Champion.”
Okka von der Damerau brought a youthful tone to Brangäne. Again, we have a uniform voice, with much of a soprano-ish timbre—do not get me wrong, she is a mezzo(!). Damerau also has a charisma that is hard to explain. She was not a strong actress, but her vocal tenderness capture much of the audience’s sympathy. In the first act, particularly, she was a welcoming balance to Isolde’s harshness, being a well of compassion and humbleness. Nevertheless, her interventions in the second act’s love duet (“Einsam wachend in der Nacht”) were not great. She sang them correctly, but avoided the smoothness necessary to make it sublime. Maybe because she sang it from the audience, instead of backstage, it all sounded too forte, and the beautiful interaction with the strings was lost. Nevertheless, a promising singer.
Michael Weinius’s Tristan was certainly interesting. He is a Wagnerian tenor, with a particularly metallic tone throughout all his registers, what is always a pleasure to hear. His interventions in the second act, albeit correct, were not as exciting as they could be, and he somewhat struggled to project his voice in some few moments. Nonetheless, he redeemed himself in the third act. In my experience, usually tenors suffer more in the third act of the opera than does the wounded Tristan himself. More than once, I saw tenors barely finishing the opera with a working voice. Weinius was not that case. He had the vocal stamina to strive after such vocal marathon.
It was particularly beautiful how he transitioned his more to a more afflicted tone while he walks towards death. His “O diese Sonne” was pretty great, he wisely made his voice clearer than in the rest of night as if it was a renewed Tristan. The tenor survived, even though Tristan did not.
But the main issue of the night was, undoubtedly, the now-jeered Mary Elizabeth Williams—a former student of the Paris Opera Atelier, making her debut in the house. The reasons that a singer is heckled usually have more to do with audience expectations than with the artist; afterall, it is the audience that heckles. Parisians operagoers, rightfully, have high expectations, especially when the subject is Wagner. Nevertheless, I was surprised to listen her Isolde, especially after rave reviews from role debut in Seattle last October.
In contrast to her castmates, Williams’s lighter instrument makes her voice significantly less “Wagnerian.” Her fach is closer to a lyric spinto than a dramatic soprano. An orphan of Birgit Nilsson and Astrid Varnay would say Williams has not the voice for Isolde…
More than a problem in casting, however, there were signs of her difficulties with Wagner’s score. Williams felt that she had to make herself heard, therefore she sang forte most of the night. Her fortes are filled with harsh attacks that, eventually, compromise the beauty and focus of her voice and intonation. Her Isolde somewhat worked in the first act, when Isolde is sharp and distressed, but it lacked the tenderness for the second act love duo in which her fortes were not as sweet as their pianissimos. In fact, when she actually sang in piano, her voice had better intonation quality and expressivity, but these moments were sporadic. Moreover, the lack of vocal colors limited Isolde’s psychological construction—as if she sounded equally harsh from the first act monologues until the love duo.
From where I sat—in the parterre—I heard Williams’ voice and diction without major problems, even when she sang piano. But it seems that it was not the case for those sitting in the first and second balcony—a source said up there her “Liebestod” was inaudible. Most of the booing came from upstairs, so her poor-reception could be explained by that. Again, I personally could hear her voice fine even in the Liebestod from the parterre.
However, one thing must be said about Williams’ stage integrity. She was booed heavily in her curtain call at the end of the second act, but she returned for the third act and was jeered again, exclusively. Even Peter Sellars, well-acquainted with less friendly audiences, was a bit shy to receive a curtain call by himself—though he ultimately was praised. For better or worse, it takes much stamina to stay and return for the third act as Williams did. She faced her job that evening with “cara al sol” (facing the sun), as José Marti once said.
Was this booing necessary? That is a question for each audience member. I am tempted to believe that it takes more than bad singing to be booed so strongly. This season, I have seen singers who did not do a great job but were received warmly during their curtain calls. Some singers simply have that much charisma. One cannot deny that a woman’s body—voice is part of their body—is more open to being stigmatized, especially when the woman is not white. It does not make Williams’ Isolde any better, but it explains why her work could be subjected to harsher criticism than others. The opposite is also true: when a soprano or mezzo is praised, she can be elevated higher than anyone—there are more Divas and than Divos, and just one Divina. For some people, the middle ground is not an option.
It is interesting, however, how this relationship to the body was, somehow, problematized in Sellars’s staging. When Sellars contraposed the body edited by the cinema with the singers on the stage, he created a separation between the body that sings and produces the sound and the body that we are supposed to see on the screen—and understand to represent Tristan and Isolde. It is not the game of super-exposition of the singers—as in Simon Stone’s “Lucia”—, but a philosophical incorporation of the issues of representation and desire that are present in Wagner’s text (and Schopenhauer’s seminal work). The screened bodies cannot produce any sound—and they would not be heard if they did—since, not only are they often immersed under the water of love, but they are also not even singular or discrete bodies because they are merged into one person by Viola’s film grain. But the singers’s bodies were not together in Parisian stage. The tenor and the soprano could not make one single entity of sound, and even the public assessed them separately—the tenor was praised, the soprano was booed.
The theater gives much more control to the singer in terms of the performance, but it can break the magical power of the word “und” in “Tristan und Isolde.” It was Williams who was jeered, not Weinius, nor Dudamel.
Thus, it was a Tristan who proved able to live without the “und” because it was a “Tristan but Isolde.”