Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Second Coming

April 15, 2007

Tristan und Isolde, Act III
Photo:Kira Perov/Bill Viola
I get excited about music and theater and I have been known to cry on occasion if so moved. However, it is rare that I get breathless with anticipation or awe. However, this has been one of those weekends. The Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen performed the first three nights of “The Tristan Project” over Thursday, Friday, and Saturday this weekend and not only was I moved to tears, I was literally short of breath from excitement on several occasions throughout these evenings.

The project consists of a semi-staged version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde that is accompanied by a giant video installation from renowned visual artist Bill Viola. The Project premiered in December 2004 and then as now, each act was presented on a separate evening paired with a piece of music inspired by Wagner’s masterpiece in some way. Last time out, these works included Saariaho’s Cinq Reflects from L'amour de loin, selections from Berg's Lyric Suite and Debussy’s suite from Péleas et Mélisande. This time all three acts were paired with a work from Debussy – Act I with Printemps, Act II with Trois Nocturnes , and Act III with La damoiselle élue. The program's staging was directed by Peter Sellars and starred Christine Brewer as Isolde reprising her role from 2004. Most of the rest of the cast was different this time with Alan Woodrow as Tristan, John Relyea as King Mark, Jukka Rasilainen as Kurnewal, and Anne Sofie von Otter as Bangäne.

Tristan und Isolde, Act III
Photo:Kira Perov/Bill Viola
In some ways, it is hard for me to write about this weekend’s performances. The 2004 shows were so affecting that they probably rank among the best things I have ever seen anywhere. I had never much cared for or understood Wagner prior to that time, but Salonen and particularly the video installation from Viola opened my eyes to something that had always been there, but I had never really seen. I finally got it. Revisiting these performances now invites comparisons with memories that may be blown totally out of proportion for me and that have taken on legendary qualities in my mind. The visuals are still stunning. Viola has created a system of visual leitmotifs for the opera. They do not correspond with Wagner's and are certainly not narrative. Tristan and Isolde are represented throughout by two pairs of actors. A pair of "earthly bodies" who represent the lovers as they are bound by duty, honor, and the light of day as well as a pair of "heavenly bodies" where they are free in the darkness of night and eventually death. These actors appear in a series of beautiful images that add further layers of meaning to Wagner's work. In Isolde's final aria, the "heavenly" Tristan's body appears on a bier at the bottom of a tall portrait-configured screen. Slowly, water begins to rise from him and eventually an upward moving torrent ensues as his body rises into the air and eventually off the screen. Immediately we see a dark pool of water from underneath and as Brewer hits the final high note, Isolde's body plunges into the water at the bottom of the screen, slowly rising through the pool until she passes off the screen with the final notes of music. The images are simply perfect.

Tristan und Isolde, Act III
Photo:Kira Perov/Bill Viola
That being said, it’s easy to see why the last three days didn’t feel exactly the same as 2004 did. But despite some significant differences, these shows were still amazing. Part of the reason why these performances are so strong is that Sellars has wisely used the Walt Disney Concert Hall as a player in the performance itself. Throughout all three nights, orchestra members and vocalists would often perform in various parts of the hall well off the main stage. The incredible acoustics would often leave the audience with a startling sensation that everything could be heard clearly even if you weren’t exactly sure where the music was coming from. Sellars had taken advantage of the setting last time out, but he was much more aggressive about it this time. At the end of Act I as all the lights in the house (the light of day) slowly come on to fill the hall and the trumpet fanfare announcing King Mark’s arrival blares from the balcony, the audience was treated to the site of Salonen conducting the horns while facing the audience and away from the orchestra at the climax of the Act. It was thrilling.

The vocal performances were all very strong, if not perfect. Christine Brewer’s Isolde is a force to be reckoned with. Despite a little pitchiness at the start of Act II and a loss of some power in the final "Liebestod" compared to my memory, she remains one of my favorites. Woodrow was a significant improvement on 2004's Tristan Clifton Forbis even if he was a little thin in the higher end of his range. Von Otter, Rasilainen, and Relyea were all magnificent. Despite these contributions, though, full credit must be given to Salonen. If there was any doubt about what LA will be missing in his departure in 2009, these evenings made it perfectly clear. The Philharmonic has never sounded better. Dudamel may be many great things including a great choice for this orchestra. But I will always miss the clarity, precision, and nordic cool that Salonen has brought to LA.

The next step in the project will be two performances of the complete opera in LA over the next two weeks followed by two more in early May at the Lincoln Center. My advice - this is not the performance you want to miss.

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