In 2004, Bill Viola was asked to create a video production for Tristan
un Isolde, being put on by Peter Sellers and Esa-Pekka Salonen,
premiering in Los Angeles. His video was going to create a backdrop for
the opera, which took place all around the audience in the theater.
For those not familiar with the story of Tristan and Isolde, it
goes like this. Tristan is a Cornish knight sent to Ireland to bring
back the Princess Isolde (sometimes spelled Iseult) for his uncle King
Mark to marry. Along the way the couple injests a love potion, causing
them to fall madly in love. Though Isolde marries Mark when they return
to England, she and Tristan carry on the affair in secret, driven by the
love potion. The court often tries to accuse them of adultery, but the
couple are never caught. King Mark finally hears of the relationship and
sentences the couple to death. Tristan rescues Isolde and they run away
and hide, only to be discovered by Mark. Tristan agrees to give up
Isolde and runs away, marrying Isolde of the White Hands, because of her
name. The endings of the tale vary on who is telling it. In one
version, Tristan is attacked by Mark with a poison lance and killed.
And in yet another, Tristan is struck by a poison lance while rescuing
six maidens from a group of knights. He tells his wife’s brother to sail
back to Cornwall and retrieve Isolde, his first love, and to fly white
sails if she will return and heal him. However his jealous wife switches
the sails to black and Tristan dies of grief thinking Isolde has
Bill Viola’s specialty is slowing down time, manipulating the time flow of his video pieces. He wants you to see the seconds within a second, to let the viewer dwell in the emotion of that moment. By coordinating these slow, symbolic sequences with music, we get a powerful wave of emotion and symbolism. The video displays scenes from the opera using symbology. Tristan walks through a wall of fire and the embers stick to his chest like dozens of little stars. A galaxy. Yet another scene shows the couple cleansing theselves, an act of purification before they plunge into a pool together, hands clasped. In death, Viola created a sequence called ‘ascention’, in which Tristan lies on a stone slab, seemingly underwater, and light and water rise from his body like backwards rain until he has dissolved entirely. Viola’s trademarks of fire and water are heavily used here. Viola was inspired by the essential nature of myth — «the
drama of human beings in context with and engaging the natural forces,
the cosmic forces.» (NPR).
Interesting Fact: When Viola was first given the music to the production by Sellars, the artist couldn’t get past the first scene. Overwhelmed by the music, he thought he couldn’t do it, and shelved the project for a week.
Behind the Scenes:
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