Photo © Vincent Pontet

Bill Viola, Tristan und Isolde

October 18, 2018




Vincent Pontet

A production

Opéra National de Paris

Director: Peter Sellars

Video: Bill Viola

Costumes: Martin Pakledinaz

Lighting: James F. Ingalls

Last September, Opéra national de Paris brought back to the stage its 2005 production of Tristan und Isolde featuring video art by Bill Viola and directed by Peter Sellars.

The production originates from The Tristan Project which dates back to 2004 when Peter Sellars took to the Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall the three acts of the Wagner opera performed in a semi-staged version. Each act was performed on a different evening. The performance was complemented with videos by Bill Viola projected on a screen hanging over the orchestra.

The following year, the project took the form of a complete opera performance, staged at the Opéra Bastille in Paris. The production has had several revivals in the following years and was again on the Paris stage last September. 

Bill Viola, Tristan und Isolde | © Vincent Pontet / Opéra national de Paris
Bill Viola, Tristan und Isolde | © Vincent Pontet / Opéra national de Paris

The set is dominated by Viola’s video art. The images do not illustrate or represent the story directly. They create a world parallel to the stage action with a symbolic function, as inner reflections of human consciousness in the state of surrender to all-consuming love. 

Bill Viola, Tristan und Isolde | © Vincent Pontet / Opéra national de Paris
Bill Viola, Tristan und Isolde | © Vincent Pontet / Opéra national de Paris

We report an extract from Notes of Intention written by Bill Viola for the Tristan Project programme at the Walt Disney Concert Hall,  Los Angeles Philharmonic:

Richard Wagner’ Tristan und Isolde is the story of a love so intense and profound that it cannot be contained in the material bodies of the lovers. In order to fully realize their love, Tristan and Isolde must ultimately transcend life itself. This theme of the spiritual nature of human love is an ancient one whose roots can be traced out beyond the specific medieval origins of the Celtic legend, and deep into the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Tantra that lie merged in the Western cultural unconscious. It was Peter Sellars who first made me aware of Tristan’s connection to the Eastern sources that have long preoccupied me. I was soon drawn into Wagner’s 19th-century work by the latent traces of their magnetic pull and the stark but rich simplicity of the composer’s conception. In terms of working method, I first listened to various versions of the music but then worked primarily from the libretto to visualize an image world flowing within, and without the dramatic storyline performed on the stage. Moving images live in a domain somewhere between the temporal urgency of music and the material certainty of painting, and so are well suited to link the practical elements of stage design with the living dynamics of performance. I knew from the start that I did not want the images to illustrate or represent the story directly. Instead, I wanted to create an image
 world that existed in parallel to the action on the stage, in the same way that a more subtle poetic narrative mediates the hidden dimensions of our inner lives. The images are intended to function as symbolic, inner representations that become, to echo the words of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “reflections of the spiritual world in the mirror of the material and the temporal.” They trace the movement of human consciousness through one of its most delicate, poignant states: the surrender to an absolute, all-consuming love. The range of experience of this power extends over an entire lifetime, from the excited, naive heartbeats of a teenager’s first love to the expansive realization of a much larger Love that is the fundamental, universal principle of human existence, glimpsed later in life and described in detail by saints and mystics in all cultures throughout history. The images in the three acts contain interweaving, recurring threads but are distinct in reflecting different stages of the lover’s path toward liberation. Act I presents the theme of Purification, the universal act of the individual’s preparation for the symbolic sacrifice and death required for the transformation and rebirth of the self. The mutual decision to drink death plunges the lovers beneath the surface to reveal the infinite ocean of an invisible immaterial! world. Act II concerns The Awakening of the Body of Light – the release, through the cleansing illumination of love, of the luminous spiritual form encased within the dark inertia of the material body. The theme is bringing light into the world, but when the outer world finally encroaches on their ecstatic union, a temporal and material darkness descends on the lovers whose only release lies in the pain of separation and self-sacrifice. Act III describes The Dissolution of the Self in the stages of dying, the delicate and excruciating process of the separation and disintegration of the physical, perceptual and conceptual components of conscious awareness. We are plunged into the agony and delirium of death and suffering, replete with visions, dreams and hallucinatory revelations that play across the surface of a dying man’s mind. When the flames of passion and fever finally engulf the mind’s eye, and desire’s body can never be met, the reflecting surface is shattered and collapses into undulating wave patterns of pure light. Finally, the lovers ascend in turn and are drawn up in peace to a realm beyond the polarities of male and female, birth and death, light and darkness, beginning and end.