Review: ‘L.A. Philharmonic Tristan Project’

Disney Hall's planners envisioned it as a dedicated concert space, but that doesn't seem to faze its principal occupants. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's top attraction right now, in fact, handsomely shepherded by its star music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, is the most daunting of all operas, Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde."

Disney Hall’s planners envisioned it as a dedicated concert space, but that doesn’t seem to faze its principal occupants. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s top attraction right now, in fact, handsomely shepherded by its star music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, is the most daunting of all operas, Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” produced not merely in concert form but in an off-the-wall, multimedia production as much for the eye as for all the senses. Wagner, whose superheated writings blathered at length about something he envisioned as a “total art-work,” would surely approve.

The Philharmonic’s “Tristan Project,” as it’s currently called, is actually the out-of-town tryout for a staging of Wagner’s steamy hearts-aflame drama eventually headed for Paris, where it opens at that city’s Bastille Opera on April 12 for a seven-performance run. Visuals consist of a complex “conceptualization” by video artist Bill Viola, which range from natural settings (a forest scene at sunset where the lovers meet, reduced to a single tree at blinding sunrise when their tryst is discovered by the wronged husband) to purely abstract (the lovers, portrayed by aerialists, afloat in infinite watery bubbles as their passion transcends earthly contact).

Two pairs of actors stand in for the Tristan and Isolde in Viola’s filming, which shows up in Disney on a large (35 feet by 20 feet) suspended screen (with another screen up back for the folks seated in the “orchestra view” sections). One pair makes love; another floats above, around, through and below them, through air, fire and water, to symbolize the various forms of ecstasy Viola and stage director Peter Sellars have extracted from Wagner’s multifaceted score. Down below all this, on Earth as it were, another pair on the solid wood of the Disney Hall stage takes care of the actual musical demands. Confusing? No more so than Wagner’s music itself, over which musicologists and psychiatrists have haggled since the work burst upon astonished operagoers some 140 years ago.

In Los Angeles’ mostly American cast, Christine Brewer and Clifton Forbis are the somewhat above-average lovers; these will be replaced in Paris by power players Waltraud Meier and Ben Heppner. And while the Los Angeles “Tristan” is being doled out over three nights, one act at a time with a $125 top ticket each night, Paris will see the opera whole at a e150 ($210) top. All that plus April in Paris.

L.A. Philharmonic Tristan Project

Walt Disney Concert Hall; 2,275 seats; $125 top

Production

Presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. in collaboration with the Paris National Opera and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Director, Peter Sellars; video artist, Bill Viola. Reviewed Dec. 3, 4, 5, 2004; runs until Dec. 12.

Crew

Program: Richard Wagner's three-act opera "Tristan und Isolde," presented in three concerts. Also, music by Alban Berg, Claude Debussy and Kaija Saariaho. Conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and men of the L.A. Master Chorale.

Cast

Tristan - Clifton Forbis Isolde - Christine Brewer Brangane - Jill Grove Kurvenal - Alan Held King Markes - Stephen Milling
With: Thomas Studebaker, Michael Slattery, Jinyoung Jang, Heidi Grant Murphy, Kyle Ketelsen.
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