LYON, France (Reuters) - Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is a notoriously static opera whose two central characters mostly stand on stage singing for almost four hours.
In a new production at the Opera de Lyon that had its premiere on Saturday, they do it on a set that does the moving for them, and over the course of the evening they and the audience are transported to a Wagnerian heaven.
Director Alex Olle of the Catalan stagecraft-and-spectacle collective “La Fura dels Baus,” which leapt to world renown with the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and has since branched out into opera, has found a way to give Wagner’s famously inert work legs in a production that runs through June 22.
His staging of the tale of the doomed love between the Irish king’s daughter Isolde and the knight Tristan is not an unqualified success, as even Olle volunteered.
“Maybe I put in a few too many things, but this is my first Wagner (opera), and for me it is all about the passage of time,” Olle, who stepped in to do the production on short notice when a previous director withdrew, told Reuters after the premiere.
One of those few things too many is a ring of fire encircling the doomed lovers. It’s Wagner, yes, but wrong opera.
The opening night audience nevertheless was spellbound as Olle deployed one visual effect after another, many of them video projections, all tending to trick the mind into overlooking that this is indeed what opera skeptics fear most — two people standing and singing for hours on end.
One device is a revolving platform bearing the singers while above them looms a huge sphere that eventually becomes perhaps the biggest moon ever seen in an opera house. It descends slowly toward the stage and later, having descended to earth, opens up to become the interior of a castle — and the lovers’ bedroom.
As the curtain rises, Isolde, in what probably counts as one of the few sight gags ever attempted in this moody work, is retching with sea-sickness — motion, again — over the side of the boat skippered by Tristan to take her to Cornwall.
Although they are in love, as a faithful servant to his king, Tristan has promised to deliver her as bride to his sovereign, King Mark. A love potion they both unwittingly drink later makes him realize his fatal mistake.
As the shoreline recedes, the sea becomes turbulent while the platform representing the ship — a stage within a stage — turns slowly clockwise and the huge moon of love that will be the main characters’ undoing creeps down on them oppressively, like a white death star.
What could better underscore Wagner’s theme that love is more powerful than life or death, but time moves on, inexorably?
It takes two strong singers to make it work and Danish soprano Ann Petersen, tackling for the first time one of the hardest of all soprano roles, and American tenor Clifton Forbis rose to the challenge, though in different ways.
Forbis, whose voice has a husky quality that makes him a man’s man of a Tristan, seemed to come alive in the third act when, in fact, he is at death’s door after receiving a fatal wound at the end of Act Two from one of King Mark’s henchmen, who has unmasked the cheating lovers.
The weapons used are rifles rather than swords, which is not particularly Wagnerian but if anyone was sleeping through the lush, rich orchestral playing led by the Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko, the shots woke them up.
Tristan would be dead from the wound but for his love of Isolde, and Wagner gives him a lot to sing in order to demonstrate the power of love over death.
“The third act is notoriously a killer for all tenors,” Forbis said. “But I think it’s one of those things you just have to throw yourself into because if you try to observe it from afar it defeats you.”
For Petersen, the challenge was keeping enough energy in reserve to tackle the work’s most famous aria, the final “Liebestod,” roughly “love death,” in which Wagner seals the two protagonists’ fate and sends them into an afterlife where their erotic love becomes eternal in death.
“I love singing it when I haven’t done the first or the second acts,” Petersen said after the final curtain.
(Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Opera de Lyon through June 22. www.opera-lyon.com)
Editing by Paul Casciato