Though it is video art that distinguishes Peter Sellars’ 2004 production from other concert performances of Tristan und Isolde, that is not what makes it outstanding.
The purpose may be clear, but much remains problematic with Bill Viola’s designs that appear on a large screen behind the Philharmonia Orchestra. Act I’s images are the strongest, as they present the figures of Tristan and Isolde isolated in separate frames, slowly and awkwardly disrobing to highlight the passions they reserve for each other as well as their vulnerability. After drinking the love potion, they join and hurtle through the water, showing how they have been freed but are hardly in control of their destiny.
For the rest of the time, however, we are presented with rather general images of water, fire, rocks and light. Viola purposely chose not to represent the story directly, but, with some exceptions such as the final moving motif, his intended meanings (as explained in the programme) hardly come across.
But the projections do work as part of the overall concept. It would be hard for the characters to interact effectively in the vast concert halls in which this Tristan is typically performed, so it is a wise decision to see the lovers face the front, frequently remaining on opposite sides of the conductors podium. Rather than seeing the drama acted out literally, their evolving relationship is explored through the words and music, with the video backdrops contributing a further layer of meaning. The singers also perform from a variety of balconies and boxes around the hall, with the result that the audience, far from being detached observers, feel very much at the centre of the experience.
Without exception, the cast is superb. Violeta Urmana is a powerfully voiced Isolde, with strong vibrato and infinite presence as she sings to the audience, her palms facing outwards. In direct contrast, Gary Lehman is a clean, sharp voiced Tristan, who adopts a range of facades and emotional personae as he goes from externally proud warrior to heart-broken, bleeding mortal. Anne Sofie von Otter is also a captivating Brangne, and Jakka Rasilainen a resonant Kurwenal.
Esa-Pekka Salonen elicits a smooth and wondrously intricate account of the score from the Philharmonia Orchestra, while as King Marke, bass-baritone Matthew Best’s contribution to the proceedings greatly outweighs the size of his role. With his rich, broad voice full of breathtaking detail, his entrance in Act II alters the whole tone of the drama as he sings directly to Tristan.
As he throws his arms around his subject, the hurt he feels at being betrayed by his friend becomes almost too much to bear, and the episode is one of several over the evening that make an already powerful performance feel truly overwhelming.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk