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The Out-Of-Town Tristan

Video still by Bill Viola,photo by Kira Perov


Times were when a big Broadway-bound show would spend a couple of weeks working out the kinks in an out-of-town tryout run, in Boston perhaps or New Haven. Something like that, if not exactly, is happening with the Philharmonic’s The Tristan Project, which ends its two-weekend run at Disney Hall as you read these words. It will then pack up and, sooner or later, head for Paris, where it begins a seven-performance stint at Opéra Bastille on April 12. As here, Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct, Peter Sellars will direct, and video magician Bill Viola will create the visuals. Unlike here, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde will be presented in one lump instead of three, one ticket at a 150-euro top ($210 or thereabouts) instead of three at $125 per. You won’t get the Los Angeles Philharmonic as the pit band, or the sound of Disney Hall, but you’ll get Ben Heppner as Tristan, Waltraud Meier as Isolde, and April in Paris. Go figure.

It hasn’t taken very long for the Philharmonic to find a way around the notion that Disney Hall was to be a concerts-only edifice, with opera relegated to that other place up the street. Regardless of whether the many important aspects of Bill Viola’s video mastery have anything all-embracing to say about the future of operatic production, it is at least true that his artistic insights mesh quite gorgeously with the interweave of symbolism that has kept Wagner’s inscrutable masterpiece alive and well for its 140 years of turbulent life. It hasn’t required much in the way of onstage gadgetry, merely a projection of Viola’s gorgeous conceptualization onto a large (35-by-20-foot) suspended screen (with another small screen up back for the folks in the "orchestra view" seats), to realize the magic in actual performance. This is already a step back — permanent, I hope — from the multi-screen and multi-mess creation that management imposed on the Berlioz Fantastique last season.

Three pairs of lovers are involved. One pair, on the stage or at various vantage points elsewhere in the hall, cope with the notes of Wagner’s score, with reasonable if not spectacular success: Christine Brewer, an imposing soprano with a considerable gift for making herself heard, and Clifton Forbis, whose darkish tenor takes on an unpleasant spread at times. (Danish basso Stephen Milling, in the dishwater-dull role of King Marke, is the only singer really worth staying awake for.) Two other pairs are the personages of Bill Viola’s screen, the fulfillments of the various levels of ecstasy that he and Peter Sellars have mined from the mysterious reaches of Wagner’s score. The "earthly" pair (Jeff Mills and Lisa Rhoden) are the embodiment of literal lovemaking, making their way through a barrier in most of Act 1 and then going at it hot ’n’ heavy in Act 2. The "heavenly" pair (John Hay and Sarah Steben), aerialists and trapeze artists by trade, epitomize all this with marvelous swoops through air, fire and water — the water being so pure and seductively bubbly as to constitute an art form of its own.

It’s easy enough to dismiss some of this as unnecessary monkeying with the classics, especially with the box-office economics of the one-in-three presentation; you also can’t help wondering at the fate of this production with a contemporary Paris audience. (See last Sunday’s New York Times magazine.) On the other hand, this is a Tristan of extraordinary beauty: the creators’ responses to what lies deep within this extraordinary work of art, the visual beauty of the material chosen to symbolize those responses, and the insight with which that material is used — the changing light on the tree at sunrise in Act 2, to note one image I cannot get out of my head. And then there’s the matter of just the sound of Tristan und Isolde as performed by Salonen and the Philharmonic in Disney Hall. That’s something else you don’t easily get out of your head.


Someone should find a way to set Peter Sellars to music. It would take a full complement of oratorical Wagnerian brass, plus a gaggle of Mendelssohnian woodwinds, playing so quickly as not to remember what they’ve just performed, plus a few other instruments to giggle and go "hee-haw" at times. At one of the Tristan Project pre-concert talks, the matter came up of why the opera was being spooned out piecemeal, one act at a time, to Los Angeles audiences. This launched a Sellars verbal rocket of breathtaking trajectory, touching upon matters in Tristan und Isolde such as epic dimension, inner gravity, and the marvel of Wagner’s multilayered orchestration and plot management.

There is just too much in the whole of the opera, Sellars proclaimed in so many words, to cram into a single evening. That may come as a surprise to a couple of people I know. Many of Sellars’ points rank as high-class music-appreciation stuff, and you can find them in some of the very best textbooks as part of the respect paid to the whole of Tristan und Isolde as the three-act entity that has gladdened operagoers around the world for well over a century — including a few here in Los Angeles, where the Philharmonic, as it happens, participated in a pretty good Tristan, with sets by David Hockney, back in 1987.

As partial recompense for the bit-by-bit treatment of Tristan, Salonen and the orchestra preceded each of the single acts with music whose composers owed much of their own outlooks to the upheavals Wagner’s masterpiece had created. First came Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite: not the entire work, just the three (of six) movements that Berg himself expanded for full string orchestra — thus, however, omitting the one movement that actually includes a quote from Tristan. On the second night there was the orchestral suite, pretty but aimless, that Erich Leinsdorf cobbled together from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Finally came a suite from the most recent Tristan-inspired masterpiece, Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de Loin, with Heidi Grant Murphy and Kyle Ketelsen as medieval romancers thwarted by destiny. Hugely successful at its 2000 Salzburg premiere, and at Santa Fe two years later, Saariaho’s opera fairly throbs with music of almost painful beauty, worthy in both plotline and sound to flourish in the Wagnerian shadow. After the final music in this suite, a latter-day Liebestod hauntingly sung by Grant Murphy, I would have willingly gone home. Only the prospect of those dark, dark strings at the start of Tristan’s final act kept me in the hall.

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