Times were when people spoke of Wagner’s drama of hearts aflame and extinguished in terms of legendary singers: Melchior/Flagstad and Nilsson/Vickers, more recently Eaglen/Heppner. No more. This is the David Hockney “Tristan,” named for its illustrious designer and getting by (just barely) on its singers.
The singer famine haunts the land. John Treleaven, whose Tristan was heard two months ago in Munich, also can be heard in the role on a DVD from Barcelona, his voice each time the dry stream of well-regulated sound bearing no Tristan identity. Linda Watson, the Isolde, stepped in midway in that Munich “Tristan” for another ailing soprano and is similarly ubiquitous these days. From both one hears adequate, uncommitted singing from voices capable of finding the right notes, but little more. Joining them in the “merely capable” category is the bland but blustery Kurvenal of Finnish baritone Juha Uusitalo and Viennese mezzo Lioba Braun.
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All of which makes it understandable that the grandiloquent Hockney designs, whose multicolored splendor mirrors the rich textures in James Conlon’s surging orchestral underpinning, take over as the redeeming elements in this revival.
Twenty years have not dimmed their rich colors and even richer contrasts. The magical story-book moment at the start of each act, when the set becomes visible through the scrim, remains breathtaking. If the singers don’t define the elements in Wagner’s lovelorn tragedy this time around, the colors of Hockney’s designs do: The rich, plain colors of the costumes against the exuberant shipboard stripes and curlicues, the stark plainness of the death-haunted third act set as an extension of the orchestra’s woodwind solos.
In the long run, any Wagnerian production rides to glory or disaster on its orchestra, and it is to Conlon that the glory, for this uneven but worth-your- attention “Tristan” mostly befalls, as he sharpens his receptors for next season’s “Ring” productions. His performance that brought cheers, ones that no previous L.A. Opera conductor has received or, for that matter, deserved.