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06 Dec 2004

Los Angeles Philharmonic Tristan Project

I spent a spectacular three days in Walt Disney Concert Hall taking in the magnificent music of Richard Wagner in what has been entitled The Tristan Project. At first, when this three day event was announced as part of...

I spent a spectacular three days in Walt Disney Concert Hall taking in the magnificent music of Richard Wagner in what has been entitled The Tristan Project.

At first, when this three day event was announced as part of the season's schedule my reaction was, wow, somebody is listening. Finally a Wagner opera as a mini series. I could not have been farther from the truth. Yes, they did do it over three days, an act each day. But any relationship to a TV mini series is just not there other than the time frame.

The Philharmonic did not make seeing all the pieces of this project easy. The three segments were scattered on different two or three of them on any one series. So one had to figure out how to get the precious tickets needed to see all of this in some sort of order. It was a great marketing ploy....extra subscriptions were probably sold in order to get the right tickets. Friends and I have wondered why they did not package this as a separate series in of itself, as the Ring is frequently done. But scramble we did and tickets we did get, and it was worth all the effort.

And the next thing I have to say before I presume to write anything about the experience I have had this week-end that I am not a Wagner scholar and not imbued in his music. I like what I have heard and look forward to hearing more. So don't expect some great treatise on Tristan und Isolde (T & I) here. I cannot produce that!!

Wagner's masterpiece has been and continues to be a major influence on the opera world on many levels. Other composers have been influenced by the work and have been inspired to write their own pieces of music out of that influence. Singers yearn to sing the major roles and opera houses put together magnificent productions to great acclaim.

But the project in Los Angeles is not produced by the Los Angeles Opera. It is a project of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in collaboration with the Paris Opera and Lincoln Center. The director of the project is Peter Sellars, whose work most opera goers are very familiar with, and who's El Nino with the Phil and John Adams I dearly loved.

After Wagner's music the heart and soul of this production is the video artistry of Bill Viola, a world renowned visual artist who has worked with Peter Sellars in the past. His work is exhibited in major museums around the world and he is well published. I cannot fail to mention the third member of the triumvirate of influences in this piece....Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. He is conducting his first Tristan in this venture.

As Peter Sellars discussed in the pre performance lectures, Act one is about purification, Act 2 about light and love and Act 3 about returning to earth (death...dust to dust?). This is a VERY oversimplified statement and in no way describes the enormity of this musical experience.

I would have had a much less dramatic experience if I had not attended the lectures and heard Sellars and others passionate discussion of this work. At one point Sellars actually choked up as he described the death of Tristan and Isolde singing the Liebestod. Tribute to the quality of the pre-performance presentation was the presence of composer and conductor John Adams seated in the middle of the hall, unnoticed by most.

The staging is concert style with singers in front of the orchestra for the most part. But Disney Hall offers the opportunity to place singers and instrumentalists around the space for greatest effect. The production made use of all of the hall, aisle ways, unseen spaces and 360 degree placement of musicians.

There are very large video screens in the front and back of the hall for the visuals of Bill Viola and also the usual screens for the translated texts of the German language libretto.

The cast is top drawer....Christine Brewer as Isolde, Clifton Forbis as Tristan ( Why Wagner did not call this Isolde and Tristan is beyond me), Jill Grove as Bragane, Stephen Milling as King Marke, Alan Held as Kurwenal and Thomas Studebaker as Melot. The Sailor's voice and Shepard are sung by Michael Slattery and Los Angeles Opera young artist Jinyoung Jang did a nice job with the small part of the Steersman.

If you have an opportunity to hear Brewer singing anything don't hesitate. This is a major talent in our midst and a voice that should not be missed.

As the music of Wagner unfolds in Act 1 the visuals depict Tristan and Isolde stripping themselves of their earthly connections and becoming surreal characters and taking on the mythical dimension that I think the music supports. The visuals are silent and the music is totally from the "live" singers and orchestra. The timing and tempo's worked well and the three elements came together beautifully for me. I heard some audience members comment that they ignored the visuals and just concentrated on the music. That is ok and fine if you wanted to do that. But for me it was a total experience and the visuals were part of the total sensory experience.

My seat for the Act 1 segment was in the balcony and there were brass players and singers placed three rows behind me and unseen chorus members out of sight on the sides on that level. The effect of being "in the music" was monumental. As the story unfolds and leads Tristan and Isolde to the point of what they think is death and becomes ultimately love, the music unfolded from all corners of Disney Hall. It was an amazing experience to feel this music this way.

For Act 2 I was still in the balcony. The experience of visually entering the forest and having these musical characters feel and convey the love they have but don't really understand was amazing. I do think the visuals for Act 1 were far more spectacular and riveting than those of Act 2. But the music was stunning and the LA Phil has never sounded better.

I was not at all ready for Act 3 and its power. The anguish of Tristan as he waits for Isolde and the spectacular entrance of Isolde were spellbinding. Brewer sang the Liebestod with such power and magnificence that many in the audience were in tears, yours truly included. The visuals of the return to heaven or home or to ones maker (choose your own terminology here) were riveting and so integrated in the music. I could not take my eyes off them.

This is a powerful opera no matter when it is presented. Most of Wagner's work has a "more than meets the eye" component to it. The visuals and Sellars concepts (most of which will be fully realized in Paris when this is fully staged along with the visual presentations) seek to explore that underlying message that is there. The music tells the story very well and has stood the test of time without question. The libretto is clear and well done. The added component of allowing the audience member to go beyond that aspect and do some searching within for the added sense of what this music might mean to us today is a gift from Sellars and Viola, and is enabled by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Cheryl Dowden

[Click here for more information on The Tristan Project.]

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