NEW YORK - Opera would seem to have taken a belated cue from arena rock concerts: "The Tristan Project," which plays at Lincoln Center Wednesday and Saturday after stops in Paris and Los Angeles, presents Wagner's majestic masterpiece
Tristan und Isolde
in a concert performance with a huge video screen in lieu of a conventional production. But while rock concerts simply magnify the onstage action, the "Tristan" screen presents an entirely different world.
In a four-hour video created over the course of a year by the noted California-based artist Bill Viola (whose work is usually seen at the J. Paul Getty Museum), the opera's long Act I buildup - when the title characters confront and curse each other before accidentally drinking a love potion - is accompanied on video with actors showing Tristan and Isolde in separate quarters, slowly and gravely shedding their clothes for a ritualistic bathing. Are they preparing for battle? Burial? Both?
Even with the prestige of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen at Lincoln Center, audiences will be skeptical. In Philadelphia, the marriage of classical music and video - whether atmospheric slides used by Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, live video screens in Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, or computer-rendered visualizations of the musical score - hasn't had a sustained life. "The Tristan Project," however, is fundamentally different. Viola doesn't illustrate, but creates an ongoing dialogue with the opera.
"It's myth as labyrinth," Viola, 56, said the other day by phone from his studio. "If you approach Wagner by illustrating every nuance, you're going to burn out. It's impossible. It's not unlike Shakespeare in that way - you can study a single sentence in Shakespeare for the better part of your life. . . .
"When you take on Wagner, be prepared for rough seas. His work is one of the closest to being undoable to anything I know. He raises the bar. It was intense. It stressed my family."
The video is full of fire and water, and sometimes water that's on fire. Waterfall images are frequent, but in this opera about transfiguration, water rushes up, not down. With a budget over $1 million, the video was partly shot on a sound stage, plus there were some happy accidents.
"The first week I started shooting, I went to Huntington Beach," Viola recalled. "It was late afternoon. Light was fading. There had just been a rainstorm and, all of the sudden, this golden light came breaking through the clouds. There was a boat on the horizon. It started raining. The water was hitting the lens. I covered the camera with my jacket. . . ."
The results are in Act III when the dying Tristan hallucinates Isolde's arrival by sea. "That's what crying looks like," says Viola, "from the inside."
With any visual breakthrough comes the danger of upstaging the music. Franco Zeffirelli's cinematically extravagant I Pagliacci production, for example, was so overloaded with people, things and animals that you could barely spot Placido Domingo. Visual components can so ignore the power of the music as to create opera for the deaf. However, "The Tristan Project" and like-minded endeavors show signs of being music-enhancing, if only because video can free singers from the more literal storytelling duties to concentrate on what they do best - stand, sing and create characters with their voices.
"You really focus more on the music and the expression of the music," "Tristan Project" star Christine Brewer told National Public Radio. Thanks to video monitors onstage, she can emotionally respond to what the audience is seeing. In contrast, the latest Tristan und Isolde DVD - an Olivier Py production from Grand Theatre de Geneve - has Isolde (Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet) so busy handling skulls and potions, you know she'd phrase more carefully without them.
Other video-heavy opera productions illustrate the possible combinations of the living and the virtually living. The Jose Montalvo production of Rameau's Les Paladins at Paris' Chatelet Theatre (available on Opus Arte DVD) is so intricately coordinated that a computer-animated subway train arrives onstage with live people emerging from the open doors. Visual overload? Sure. But the 18th-century Rameau is better off with noiseless animation than rattling stage machinery of King Louis XV's time.
The best specimen was The Magic Flute imported by the Brooklyn Academy of Music from La Monnaie (the Royal Opera House of Belgium) earlier this month: As masterminded by filmmaker/visual artist William Kentridge, the opera's many magic elements (starting with a dragon in the first scene) were stylishly projected onto a rear screen, though with an artfully sketchy sense of suggestion that stimulated the viewer's imagination.
The benefit to performers seemed enormous. Instead of the Queen of the Night's florid vocalism being mere fireworks, soprano Milagros Poblador, who wasn't encumbered by the usual accessories of royalty (large crown, robes, etc.), organized her phrases into a finely shaded monologue without words.
Some opera producers might view new technology as a cheap shortcut: In theory, "The Tristan Project" can be transported in an e-mail attachment. And without a need for extensive staging rehearsals, it can be slotted into venues without conventional stage rigging. However, the artistic end has no shortcuts. With few reference points to fall back on, even a major artist like Viola, for all his time, money and struggle, delivered a piece that in some quarters is considered uneven - imaginative at times, heavy-handed a minute or two later.
That's what happens when on new ground. Viola is the first to say that the best-laid artistic plans can be waylaid. And that's the good news: "No matter how masterful somebody is in making art, no matter how much in command they are of their materials," Viola said, "the really deep art is a combination of falling, and delivered action.
"Despite everything you know, everything your teachers taught you, the real power happens when you give yourself over to something that's not in your control."