Friday, February 1, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Tristan und Isolde

Melanie Diener and Ben Heppner (photo credit: Michael Cooper)

A Brilliant Distraction
Once again the star is the orchestra
by Shannon Christy

Peter Sellars’ production of Tristan Und Isolde is a bold attempt at something new. It takes Wagner’s idea that in the future there would be other, better, devices for conveying his ideas and runs with it. 
But before delving into that, credit is needed where it is due. Toronto is a gifted city with an awesome house for opera. Conductor Johannes Debus was able to take on the Everest of Operas with very short notice to pull off a flawless performance. He kept the pace, managing to give the performers the necessary lead without allowing them to drag things down. The music was outstanding.

The voices are incredible. This is especially true for Franz-Josef Selig who plays Marke, the King of Cornwall. His laments, his pleas, his anger, are like a heavy cream for the soul. His is a voice that awakens your demons and tells them to be on guard. Both Ben Heppner (Tristan), and Melanie Diener (Isolde), are wonderful but their performances though bright are but mere shadows compared to Mr. Selig’s.

The second problem is Mr. Heppner’s appearance.

The acting leaves something to be desired. Wagner was a genius at musical compositions and it shows. He knew this and that is why his operas are so long. Unfortunately this does not lend itself to acting and it is not uncommon for the actors to appear as if they are stuck in a finished moment, trying to pass time. For instance, after Melot, played by Ryan McKinny, has stabbed Tristan he needlessly goes through the effort of showing everyone on the stage and beyond his blood-stained hands. He did this because the music went on for quite awhile after he was finished singing; however it ended up looking more like his hand had a cramp and he was desperately trying to get someone to stretch it than as if he was showing remorse for wounding a good man.

The second problem is Mr. Heppner’s appearance. It is understood that Tristan is experienced; a General responsible for serving his King and winning him glory on the battlefield and unfortunately he looked like the only thing he had ever won glory at was hot-dog eating contests. In short Mr. Heppner does not cast a romantic image.

However, the show does not require you to look at Mr. Heppner. In fact, it provides the audience with an incredible video by visual artist Bill Viola.  It is the perfect logical conclusion for the other art forms Wagner dreamed to better represent his pieces. Bill Viola utilizes context, high definition, slow time sequences, and visual illusions to create mind-blowing effects. There is very little chance you will ever see images as rich and compelling as this. I do not know whether it distracts from the opera or if it lends itself to it; probably both, but it is a bold creation the likes of which I am honoured to have witnessed. 

If you want to have your soul stirred and challenged and do not mind some stilted acting, supported by compelling visual art and beautiful sounds then go to this rarely presented work before it goes back to the abyss on February 23. 

Tristan und Isolde runs to February 23


  1. I don't generally see opera, but I had to read this when the Facebook plug mentioned something about "looks do matter". I knew what this going to be about, but I still came here and read the relevant paragraph, and FUCK THAT NOISE.

    Slamming a performer for their larger body isn't groundbreaking criticism, it's going right along with the dominant discourse about what makes bodies watchable, desirable, and/or appropriate for being on stage. As a fat woman, I FREQUENTLY get comments from reviewers about my body, and they are never ever related to my performance quality; they are about how the reviewer doesn't find me attractive, and THAT IS NOT RELEVANT. Especially in opera. It's music, GAH!

    I'm not saying that everyone needs to find everybody attractive, but we as culture makers and watchers and critics owe it to ourselves and our audiences to fuckin' CHECK our attitudes, twice, and see what is legit criticism and what is brainwashing.

    Also, the line about winning glory in hot-dog eating contests isn't clever. It's juvenile.

    DISCLOSURE: On February 17 I'm facilitating a workshop at the MainLine Theatre in Montreal, on body acceptance for performers, and I am TOTALLY quoting this review as an example of what we all struggle against.

    1. Criticize the acting all you want... but seriously? You felt the singer playing Tristan wasn't your romantic ideal - that's the big comment? How about picking on the designers who maybe didn't costume him appropriately, emphasizing his weight when they could have made it about his face or HIS VOICE! How about commenting on how well he sang it? (I do note how few observations on the music are even in this review.) Damned insulting review and there's no need for it. Stretch your critical muscles and get past the superficiality of appearance. Maybe I think Mr. Heppner is a golden god physically, maybe not. Maybe I think some tall, skinny opera singer would pass out trying to sing a 5 hour opera... But seriously, criticize the staging, the music, the plot even but not the performer's weight. Bad on you for even considering this a review.

    2. Just wondering if any of you actually SAW this opera before speaking of the review?
      'Cause if you did, like me for instance, this makes total sense. Tristan's physic IS clashing completely with his role and the costumes, speaking of which, do not help... Actually, I wondered if there was any wardrobe mistress on staff for this production: his blazer sleeves/the jacket itself are way too long which give even more the impression that we have a middle class white carpet bagger on stage in lieu of a soldier.
      Now, I might completely miss the intention of the director here and maybe there is one (hidden); but quite honestly the only one I could think of was irony and tongue in cheek humor about our ideal soldier/hero (images projected on the screens) versus what we actually look like or – maybe worse – a praise of the love potion extreme powers since clearly no woman in their right mind would fall in love with Heppner without their help.

  2. I agree with Chloe that the two previous commenters probably didn't see the production but are just spewing politically correct criticism. I DID see this show and thought that the orchestra and vocal performances were exceptional but that the "casting" (if you were simply choosing actors for roles) was a serious distraction. To HEAR Ben Heppner sing Tristan was unreal and amazing. To SEE him; overweight, aged and hobbling (proven by his curtain call where he seemed to need a cane to walk) did take away from the story as he did not represent the knight and hero that Tristan needs to be. Actors in straight theatre are cast on many factors, including talent, voice and physicality. Opera does make exceptions because the vocal ability is first and foremost. We know that and accept it but this Tristan suffered because of Ben's appearance and inability to command the role physically.


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