See all informations
Tristan und Isolde
Opéra Bastille - from 11 September to 09 October 2018
5h20 with 2 intervals
Language : German
Surtitle : French / English
Opening night : 11 September 2018
In few words:
Motivated by the love that bound him to Mathilda Wesendonck, Richard Wagner’s composition of Tristan und Isolde goes far beyond any simple operatic gesture. His libretto transcends the medieval legend in a metaphysical view of love with its tensions and pessimism. Peter Sellars’ production pours oil onto this troubled sea of emotions in an almost dematerialised setting bared of all earthly contingencies whilst Bill Viola presents the lovers’ initiatory quest for nirvana in videos detached from the stage, suspended like altarpieces. The association of these two major artists gives birth to a unique, holistic work of art.
- First Part 85 mn
- Interval 45 mn
- Second Part 80 mn
- Interval 30 mn
- Third Part 80 mn
Tristan und Isolde
Opera in three acts
MusicRichard Wagner(1813 - 1883)
Direct video editing/ mixingAlex MacInnis
Executive producer (video)Kia Perov
Costume designMartin Pakledinaz
Lighting designJames F. Ingalls
Chorus masterAlessandro Di Stefano
Un moment d'ivresse esthétiqueMaurice Ulrich, L’Humanité, 17/09/2018
C'est une des plus belles œuvres parmi celles données à l'opéra de Paris ces dernières annéesMaurice Ulrich, L’Humanité, 17/09/2018
Tristan et Isolde (Saison 18/19)- Andreas Schager (Tristan), Martina Serafin (Isolde), Acte II
Tristan et Isolde (Saison 18/19)- René Pape (König Marke), Acte II
Tristan et Isolde (Saison 18/19)- Martina Serafin (Isolde), Acte II
Tristan et Isolde (Saison 18/19) - Martina Serafin (Isolde), Acte III
Podcast Tristan et Isolde
Peter Sellars and absolute music
Draw-me Tristan und Isolde
© Bill Viola
Podcast Tristan et Isolde
"Dance! Sing! 7 minutes at the Paris Opera" - by France Musique
In partnership with France MusiqueRead more
Interview with Martina Serafin
Few soprano scores are quite as demanding and complex as Isolde's. Interpreting a role is in itself an event, both for the performer and the audience attending this unique musical experience. After being an immense Sieglinde on the Bastille stage in Die Walküre and more recently a moving Elsa in Lohengrin, Martina Serafin today tackles the Wagnerian repertoire's role of all roles" in the legendary production by Peter Sellars and Bill Viola.
© Ruth Walz / OnP
Peter Sellars and absolute music
An interview about Tristan et Isolde with its director
What path led you to Tristan und Isolde?
When we talk to the singers you direct, we notice just how they are affected by the fact that you ask them for truth before theatrics.
interests me most is the human being as a miracle. When I was young, my
productions were criticised for lacking theatricality. For me, there was an
abundance of that in politics and that was enough for me! So I went in search
of a form of expression that forsakes pure theatrics in favour of the human
being with all his or her fragility and radiance. Sometimes, it takes a great
deal of patience and effort before we see a person reveal their true self. But
that patience is worth the effort. And it’s a huge privilege to witness it as
it emerges. The performers incredibly generous and courageous people that I
invite to do extremely difficult things. My productions may appear minimalist,
but they’re enriched by the contribution of all these artists. The fact of
having bare non-illusionist spaces makes it possible to better grasp their
presence which I wish are to be strong. If we can sense the majesty of the
person, the aim has been achieved.
In “Tristan”, your use of space extends from the stage to the auditorium where the singers are positioned. It’s a very powerful experience for the audience since they find themselves surrounded by the music.
The fact of having the singers nearby also helps to give a work of immeasurable musical and dramatic power a more intimate feel.
I wanted to avoid the singers appearing like a distant image. The needed to be close to the orchestra pit, close to the audience for the experience to be sensual. You need to be able to feel each word, each breath. The singers' anguish has to become our own. But Wagner also requires distance. The sublime music of Brangäne’s calls needs to be perceived as if it were coming from the moon. As the two lovers make love, cut off from the world, where do these calls come from? Are they even real? The manner in which they appear and then dissolve into space need to be shrouded in mystery. Just as the menacing presence of the horns must be perceptible everywhere. The sailors' sea shanty in the first act suggests the 19th century and the underlying discontent of a social class... We are almost among the Nibelungen!The voices must be physically situated in places where we can sense the echoes of the events. They become spaces for memory, prophesies in an eventless dramaturgy.
How did you and Bill Viola both come to be involved in this project?
His videos are often criticised for cannibalising Wagner’s opera, but we forget how much they are attuned to time as it is dictated by the action...
Unlike a set with painted canvases, Bill Viola’s videos are in motion. They
introduce a temporality that follows Wagner’s music. As such, they run in slow
motion. And this process reveals the seconds in the seconds, the minutes in the
minutes, etc. It is like being on a long pilgrimage: only by experiencing the
interiority of time are we able to have revelations and understand the essence
of things. With Wagner, there is an extremely drawn-out temporality which
interacts with a sudden action of fleeting duration. We had to seize on that
moment and make it astonishing by creating an object that maintains tension for
Just as the videos take visual account of the work’s dramatic temporality, the music allows us to contemplate differently a visual work we might see in an exhibition space...
At the beginning of the interview, you mentioned the opera’s Buddhist dimension - a religion of particular interest to Wagner. Could you tell us a little more about the work’s spiritual aspect?
and I were particularly interested in Buddhist traditions. He took the various
stages we go through when we leave this world very seriously: the transition
from a burning state to another extremely cold one, the liquids that
dissipate... This way we understand what is released in the struggle. This is
what summarises the third act. After four hours, the music becomes extremely
tense and complex. It’s particularly challenging for the instrumentalists and
the tenor singing Tristan since it requires a strength that no one possesses
having reached this stage. They have to to go and seek this lost energy at the
source from which they draw new force to to complete the seemingly impossible.
They are transcended. And thus we are confronted with the most beautiful thing
ever written, a world at once sensual and spiritual, neither Christian nor
Buddhist, but all that at the same time. This also sums up the work of Bill
“Tristan” is a work which, from beginning to end, confronts us with death whilst leading us to contemplate and approach it differently to the way our culture teaches us.
Is that why, at that moment and for the first time, the singers look at the screen on which Tristan rises?
That imagery is a reference to the painting by Titian that obsessed Wagner when he was composing “Tristan”1. Just as in the painting, where the Virgin ascends carried by a new force that contrasts with the despair of the figures in the lower portions of the canvas, Isolde asks the devastated group surrounding Tristan to contemplate another reality. The Liebestod can prove to be a trap and is often treated as a fixed moment. Musically, it escapes us; nothing has prepared us for that music. And nothing on stage manages to equal that passage. But Bill's illustration of this idea of transfiguration is so profound, so complex… The meeting of opposites gives rise to something extraordinary. We can say that a visual artist has managed to create images as transcendental as Wagner’s music.
Draw-me Tristan und Isolde
Understand the plot in 1 minute
Passion in Tristan and Isolde
One can easily have the impression, with Tristan and Isolde, of being confronted with a Wagnerian absolute. Whether this stems from the “metaphysical” aspect of his subject, or from the relative absence of nationalistic or Pan-Germanic references which, in many other of Wagner's operas might put off those music lovers most resistant to his universe, Tristan has a certain broadness of appeal. For, whatever the sources drawn on by Wagner (Gottfried of Strasbourg’s poem, Hymns to the Night by Novalis or Schlegel’s Lucinde ...), ultimately the subject explores the simplest and most universal themes in all their purity: love, suffering and death. And it depicts passion in so absolute a form that, as Romain Rolland said, Tristan towers above all other love poems like a mountain.As has been stated, love in Tristan and Isolde, appears in its most metaphysical form. This can be seen for example in the way Wagner treats the theme of the love philtre, which here does not play at all the same role as in the original myth: the philtre, this time, functions as a poetical metaphor; it does not engender the love between Tristan and Isolde: that love was already there before the two lovers drank it. Had their love been provoked by the philtre, their passion would have been but a relative passion, a phenomenon belonging to the material and temporal world of cause and effect. It exists, instead, in its own right, timelessly: rather than an objective reality, it is the way in which the two lovers see the world, it is their desire and their will projected on the world (the extent to which Tristan was influenced by Schopenhauer is well known). One need hardly add that the love between Tristan and Isolde does not require staging: rather, it inhabits the characters from within and is lodged at the heart of the singing and the music. Technically, this translates, for example, into the abandoning of recitative in favour of continuous melody: it is less important to further the action than to give life to an emotion.
Wagner’s major preoccupation in Tristan, more than in any of his earlier operas, was to live passion and elicit it in others, rather than seeking to express or show it. In 1859, had he not written to Mathilde Wesendonck, who inspired the work, that he wanted all the subtle shades of human feeling to be heard in his music with their incessant swings from one extreme to the other, independent of any action depicted and that no discourse is able to express? He thought he had found the ideal performer for Tristan when the tenor Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, who first interpreted the role in the premier performances in Munich in 1865, understood and immediately embodied his thinking, almost without his having to communicate it in words. “When I told him in a low voice that it was impossible for me to express any judgement of my ideal, that he was now about to realise, his dark eyes sparkled like a star of love ... A sob, barely perceptible, and never again did we utter a word concerning the third act”. Carolsfeld was so powerfully possessed by the role of Tristan and lived its passions so fully that Wagner, fearing for his health, ordered performances to be interrupted after the fourth night. “I do not think I have the right to inflict such a state of distress on a man”, he said. And, in fact, the singer, aged twenty-nine, died six weeks later ... Wagner, devastated, mourned not only a friend but also the ideal interpreter of his music, a performer that Carolsfeld had allowed him to glimpse and of which he held the ineffable secret.
appears once again in
1903 in the eponymous novella by Thomas Mann, exemplifying passion represented
in art with such purity that one can only play
it by experiencing it from within, and not express it or describe it. Thus,
when the ingenuous Gabrielle plays some of Wagner’s most memorable passages on
the piano, (the prelude, the second act and the death of Isolde), all their
expressive force naturally pours forth. By her side, Herr Spinell, a
connoisseur, launches into a long exalted speech that takes up some of the most
passionate expressions used by Wagner in his libretto; but his words alone, not
being music, appear to Gabrielle as mere obscure rhetoric, leaving her
mystified. “I don’t understand everything, Herr Spinell, there are many things
I only guess at [...] But how is it that you who understand this so well,
cannot play it?” she asks. “The two rarely go together,” Spinell concedes,
caught off guard. What one cannot express in words must be lived, played: that
is where art begins.
© Charles Duprat / OnP
Like barren dust in the sun
and Iseult. Isa and Tristan. Of the mythical amorous passion, of which Wagner
made an opera just as legendary, the young author, Sarah Léon, has transposed
the heroes to a contemporary winter landscape, in which the cold finally
freezes the broken heart of a delirious young woman. Delirious with love, for
the handsome Tristan seems to have betrayed their lovers’ pact. From the moment
of their meeting at the Longing Bar, toasted with an Irish love philtre, to
their passionate exchanges, Isa ceaselessly tries to detect the deception and
lies as the heroes' destinies become forever sealed by a love triangle. Alone,
Isa flees her love the better to bewail her despair.
Flee. Flee this bar, this town, those glances, either sneering or sympathetic, flee from myself out into the snow and the night, endlessly walk, wear myself out on the icy pavements, until I can no longer think, not of anything and above all not of you whose eyes, voice, hands caress me still – you – you at the piano, laughing, carefree, you so young, you – Tristan – beloved, faithless, wonderful Tristan.
Flee, flee those images that whirl in my brain like snowflakes around the street lights, the tears drying on my cheeks, these rags of memories, now shredded up. Flee that poisonous, intoxicating music, and the black hole growing inside me, seeking to devour me from within, ever stronger and more insatiable. If only it spread silently, like an oil slick in the wake of a tanker, dark and surreptitious – but no: it is like an animal tearing at my entrails, gorging on them until I scream with pain, on my knees in the snow.
Gone forever. Gone forever our evenings at the Longing Bar, gone forever the gentle pink light of the Nirvana, gone forever your smile from the other side of the bar. And those nights when you taught me to pick out a few notes on the keyboard, and when I watched you, fascinated, in the half-light, improvising on themes suggested by the clients. And that evening when you took me to the Paris Opera to hear the story of the hero whose name you bear. Gone forever.
Oh, our first meeting. Oh that evening when you erupted into my life just as you erupted into the pub, tousle-headed, radiant, a little drunk, to order an Irish coffee. And I, Isa, queen of cocktails, a magician in the matter of skilfully mixed potions, she whom all the barmaids in the area acknowledge to be the expert, handing you the glass crowned with cream, my hand trembling a little, already under the spell of your laugh, your eyes. Then our first words, your invitation – “In the evenings I play at the Nirvana, come and listen whenever you like” – and on the evenings that followed, when I wasn’t working, our complicity growing, and the hope that grew within me little by little, the certainty too, that you were the one, at last, the right one for me, that – it seems laughable doesn’t it – that we were made for one another, made to go through life side by side, live and grow old together, strong in our twoness, supreme.
And that certainty became obvious, not just for me but for all those who saw us, so much so that things seemed to go without saying – they would come in their own time – it was enough to enjoy each evening at the Longing Bar, to listen to you play, to talk late into the night, roaming the city streets, those street I run through now beneath a murky pinkish sky, a snow-laden sky, streets I long to lose myself in, never to see another morning – what’s the point?
Yes, to wander forever in dark alleyways, drawn like a moth to the flame of a shop sign, of neon lights in purple or mauve, of a luminous garland. Or disappear in the night, letting myself be lured by the banks of fog, by the maelstrom of snowflakes. Yes, to meander in the cold, and forget all about this body, this soul, leaving behind me only tears on a window pane before I dissolve.
And the black hole that engulfs me little by little, in which I sink and drown, struggling in vain, perhaps it too will disappear, absorbed by the starless night. Unless the whiteness of the snow overcomes it, filling it up and hiding it, as it has already hidden the tarmac and the pavements, blanketing the entire town bit by bit, burying it, and me with it, in endless oblivion.
I could have seen it though, should have – in spite of our complicity, not the least gesture of affection – never once did you ruffle my hair, never once did you rest your head on my shoulder – you shrouded your past, your liaisons, in silence and remained evasive when I tried to find out more. I put that down to your natural discretion which, all things considered, rather pleased me.
About Marc, you simply told me that he had taken you in on your eighteenth birthday when you ran away from home, that he had helped you, before giving you a job as a pianist in the bar over which he reigned. I saw him as your adoptive father, dazzled by your musical talents, intending to give you a chance – after all, it would only take some one, one evening, to spot you and engage you somewhere else, for your career to be launched. I liked that man, somewhat in the background, crazy about jazz, whom I sometimes used to talk to at the end of the evening, waiting for you to finish playing.
I remember one evening – I was listening to you, sitting not far away with a liqueur in front of me – an evening when Marc came and sat at my side. His eyes, which were fixed upon you, shone; I thought he was savouring the harmonies that you strung together with careless virtuosity, the caress of the melodies, the frisson of the arpeggios – perhaps also pride in having recognised your worth and knowing what an asset you were to the Nirvana. That evening, however, he didn’t talk to me about music, as he usually did; he talked about you, about your glorious, medieval name, of the exploits of the other Tristan from Cornwall. At his words, the Nirvana seemed to fill with eerie forests, wandering knights, swords and dragons, and I listened, fascinated, like a rabbit mesmerised by the eyes of a serpent.
Did he know, Marc? Had he understood what was going on, had he resolved to enlighten me or to let things take their course and amuse himself at my expense? I wasn’t supposed to be there that evening, I didn’t usually turn up without warning, but it had been days since we had seen each other, and I wanted to enjoy the snow with you – like children we would have chased each other, bombarded each other with snowballs, skidding on the ice, stars of frost in our hair – oh, my beautiful dream melted away, gone for ever...
I believed it all though, I believed in the transparency of our words, our gestures – I thought you knew, just as I thought I knew, I believed that all was limpid, clear water like a mirror in which, leaning over, we would each see the reflection of the other – a mirror that cracked this evening when I saw you together. Marc and you, face to face, entangled in an embrace that left no room for doubt. One gesture, a simple gesture like a knifeblade between my shoulder blades, like acid spreading through my veins, like poison - and yet I must not betray myself, must keep up appearances for a few more minutes, until I can flee into the night and give free rein to the suffering of the wild beast that beats against my ribs.
Oh fallacious light of day, the purple lights of the bar that hid the truth from me, the only truth worth anything, that of self-negation in the snow and the night. Such self-inflicted blindness, only to find myself here, alone at the heart of a place as livid as a shroud, staggering on the edge of the abyss, ready to annihilate myself.
Never did I try and see you anywhere but at the Longing Bar, or the Nirvana, in the city streets; never did we see each other at your place or at mine. What you did with your days, I could only imagine: practise the piano doubtless, sleep of course, listen to music. That you frequented other people didn’t concern me. I thought that the whole truth resided in those stolen moments in the night! What mockery! Your truth began elsewhere, when you went back to Marc’s, when you played the piano for him and him alone. And Marc himself – never, I admit, did I think of him except when I saw him behind the bar; for me he was one of those acquaintances that one appreciates and forgets as soon as one’s back is turned. He was so much a part of the Nirvana that in a sense, it never occurred to me that he had a life outside the bar.
What is life but a comedy, a string of illusions we forge for ourselves, we nurture against all odds, blinded by the light of day, when only night can dissipate the chimeras that dance around us. Before him who has lovingly looked on death’s night, and has known its deep secrets, the lies of daylight, honour and fame, power and fortune, glittering so bright, are scattered like barren dust in the sun.
But perhaps my life is already behind me. Perhaps these streets I roam are those of hell, and here and there, these vague silhouettes, the souls of the dead, wandering in eternal twilight. These white petals whirling around me, are they not those of asphodels torn from their stems by an icy wind? Perhaps the dawn will come no more now, perhaps I have already passed over onto the other bank, a shadow among shadows, in the city’s night.
Oh the kiss of snowflakes that bite into my flesh, engendering long frissons down my spine, cold and burning, oh my breath panting in the night, the tremors that seize me. I stop the better to feel the snow melting on my lips, brushing my shoulders with its icy fingers – spin round, my heart pounding, my eyes half closed, and give myself up to the caress of the wind, my arms outstretched, my head thrown back towards the sky, offering myself.
I am delirious, perhaps I have a fever, I must go home. Go home? Back to that stifling room only to feel the brutish pain engulf me, pinning me against my bed, crushed by a blind force – no, no, never. To sob within those sheets that will never enfold our naked bodies, will never welcome our embrace – how long must I bear it before I find a draught of death more potent than my love philtre?...
No, no, better the mindless wandering, the cold that grips my chest with its talons of ice, rifling through it as if to tear out my heart, better the endless watch for a pale dawn. Better oblivion and the fleeting repose it might bring.
Or go to you now, naked beneath my coat, and denude myself, offer myself to you, because nothing else justifies my existence, you understand, because without you I am nothing, nothing but a poor envelope of flesh on the brink of putrescence.
Or perhaps come across you, suddenly, in a bend in the road ... I imagine you there, glowing in a halo of lamplight, frost sparkling like diamonds in your hair, regal, dazzling. And I advance, slowly at first, then faster, and a few seconds before we meet we stop, immobile, we look at each other, your face close to mine, your breath on my cheek, and then very gently, at last, your lips that brush mine, your arms that pull me into the shadow of a gateway, no names, no parting, one consciousness for all eternity.
How beautiful they are suddenly, the moths fluttering in the night. And the neon signs lit up for some obscure celebration, and Tristan, radiant, advancing towards me – it was only a misunderstanding of course, how could I have believed otherwise, how could I have doubted you, doubted our love, Tristan – Tristan and Isa, this sweet little word "and", binding love's union, and suddenly nothing else counts, all is forgotten, all is forgiven, for, yes, he is really here, I’m not dreaming, I see him approach, silent and serene. How gently and calmly he smiles. How he shines ever brighter, soaring on high, stars sparkling around him ...How softly and gently from his lips sweet breath flutters!...
Why don’t these occasional passers-by, wandering
shadows, night-roaming souls, stop to look at him? Do
I alone hear this melody which, so wondrous and tender in its blissful lament,
all‑-revealing, gently pardoning, sounding from him,
pierces me through, rises up, blessedly echoing and ringing round me? Resounding yet more clearly, wafting about me, are they waves of refreshing breezes? Are they clouds of heavenly fragrance? As they swell and roar round me, shall I breathe them, shall I listen to them? Shall I drink of them, plunge beneath them, to expire in sweet perfume? In the surging swell, in the ringing sound, in the vast wave of the world's breath – to drown, to sink unconscious –bliss supreme!
The American Friends of the Paris Opera & Ballet
Radiodiffusion sur Radio Classique le 25 septembre 2018.
Media and technical partners