TRISTAN UND ISOLDE by Richard Wagner (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). In rep to February 23. $12-$390. 416-363-8231. See listings. Rating: NNNNN
In the hands of director Peter Sellars, one of the world's classic love stories gets a magical telling that allows the audience to see the opera in a fresh, imaginative framework.
Richard Wagner's version of the Tristan and Isolde tale may be long - nearly five hours - but with a largely expert cast, Johannes Debus's sensitive conducting and a splendid video design by Bill Viola, the time flies by.
The story is a basic love triangle. Tristan, a Cornish knight in King Marke's court, brings Irish princess Isolde to wed the king; she, furious for a number of reasons, plans to poison both herself and Tristan before they arrive. When her maid, Brangäne, substitutes a love potion for the poison, the two fall irremediably in love and must indulge their passion in secret, longing for night and avoiding day.
Sellars stages the action on a mostly bare set, the performers largely in black. But James F. Ingalls's lighting does a lot to define character and mood, and Viola's videos do an awesome job of expanding the text and music, sometimes amplifying or echoing the words and sometimes offering a look at the figures' subconscious in a suggestive way.
He does so by showing us landscapes as well as an inner, possibly idealized Tristan and Isolde, often surrounding them with water or fire - sometimes both together - to give the lovers' passion an elemental quality that suggests cleansing and renewal. The visuals might prove a distraction but in fact give the opera added richness.
In the title roles, Ben Heppner and Melanie Diener (Michael Baba and Margaret Jane Wray sing February 8 and 23) may be a bit stiff dramatically at the start, but their chemistry and the glorious sounds they pour out sweep any small problems away.
As Kurwenal, Tristan's retainer, Alan Held is a commanding performer, while as Marke, Franz-Josef Selig has an ebony-black bass voice and makes this sometimes secondary figure a loving lord. As Melot, Ryan McKinny is the story's villain, though Sellars gives him a note of sympathy. Only Daveda Karanas's Brangäne isn't as strong vocally or as central to the action as she should be.
This production of Tristan lives up to Wagner's idea of music theatre: that it involves the audience on all levels. Literally moving the action out into the house in a number of ways, Sellars pulls us into the action and its emotions with his mesmerizing staging.
Performances are largely sold out, but 60 standing room tickets are available day of the performance.