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Tristan and Isolde with the Potion by William Waterhouse (1916)
01 May 2007

Tristan und Isolde: Total Immersion

The Los Angeles Philharmonic in April and May brought back its Tristan Project for the benefit of audiences in California and New York City.

Above: Tristan and Isolde with the Potion by William Waterhouse (1916)


Two years ago LAPhil created the project by playing an act of the great Wagnerian romance each night coupled with other music that in some way related to Wagner, finally performing a complete presentation of the three-act masterpiece. This year the complementary composer was Debussy, and after three one act evenings at The Disney Concert Hall (and at Avery Fisher Hall in New York the following week), two full performances were played, under the musical direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. Your observer was at the second Los Angeles presentation, April 24.

These were concert performances, the so-called “project” elements being a semi-staging by director Peter Sellars supported by Bill Viola’s visual projections seen on a huge screen above and behind the orchestra, while singers were in their usual places next to the conductor, though they occasionally appeared in other locations in the hall for certain scenes. For example, the beginning of the Liebesnacht (Act II) had Isolde in a balcony on one side of the hall, Tristan opposite; gradually the singers merged onto the stage for the final moments of the duet. Brangaene sang her warnings from an uppermost balcony above and behind the stage. It was not as radical or innovative as LAPhil seemed to think, or advertise, and at times Sellars’ efforts proved to be more distracting than elucidating of Wagner’s drama.

Most puzzling were Viola’s projections. They were hardly high art, and I found they did little to support the music or action of Tristan und Isolde. For the most part they were of great specificity, too great: when the sea was mentioned in Wagner’s text, the screen showed sea; when the thwarted passion of Tristan and Isolde was referred to in Act I, Viola presented two actors filmed in a slow-motion strip finally standing entirely nude (some members of the audience departed at that point), and then dissolved into streams of water pouring over their hands, and so on, for three long acts. In the passionate Liebesnacht duet of Act II, Viola filled the screen with a huge conflagration of orange flames, as if Wagner’s music and text had not already made the point. I ultimately paid little attention to the visuals, which simply became clichéd backdrops for, in fact, the singers were acting on their own and often quite effectively. I was impressed that the presenters were trying to spoon-feed Wagner to audiences that were presumably unfamiliar with the material. Nothing could have been more pointless; the Los Angeles audience that I saw was mature, sophisticated, and knew what they were hearing.

What they heard was a vocally ravishing presentation by Christine Brewer (Isolde) and Anne Sophie von Otter (Brangaene), and instrumentalists of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of Wagner’s seminal score of passion, driven but unfulfilled, ultimately resolved in the Liebestod when death closed all wounds. Conductor Salonen and his musicians contributed a clean and clear, if uneventful, reading and the two leading sopranos could hardly have been bettered in any opera house of the world.

The locus of these performances is important, not only because Disney Hall is the home of the splendid Los Angeles Philharmonic, but also because it is a singularly eccentric room, one that does not seem particularly well suited to a presentation of big vocal music in such a manner. As is well known, Disney Hall was the brain child of Salonen working with architect Frank Gehry, and it proved of long gestation and difficult birth, with many delays and cost overruns during its design and construction. When Disney finally opened in 2003, what we found was a medium-sized hall shaped more-or-less like an old style bath tub, all grandly made of wood and beautifully decorated, with the orchestra space occupying about half the main floor. The rest of that floor is for audience, and several tiered terraces that run entirely around the arena-like room comprise the balance of the seating. Thus, music emanates from about the center of the room, and in the midst of the audience. The acoustical effect seemed, in the Tristan presentation, to be that of ‘surround-sound;’ the sound source seemed generalized, lacking in point and origin. One feels he is sitting in the middle of it all, at times not exactly certain whence the musical stream is coming. Odd as this sounds, the arrangement can work well for the orchestra and for instrumental music. The hall is acoustically well balanced, perhaps with a slight prominence to bass frequencies, and has a fine ability to blend sound. Salonen and his players are now accustomed to making music there and they do so elegantly. Yet, ironically, with the commanding voices of Brewer, von Otter and the other singers, there was in the acoustic a certain lack of ‘presence.’ The voices were generally audible, and crisp top notes would ring and resound in the hall; yet, the over-all tonal effect of the singing was a bit diffuse, even dim, especially for audience members located behind the singers and orchestra, which comprised quite a few. In a conventional proscenium hall, I expect the vocal experience would have been more satisfying, more in keeping with the nature of Wagner’s opera. LAPhil deserves high marks for trying to be innovative with this repertory piece, but the efforts of Messrs. Sellars, Viola and Salonen did not quite come off.

American soprano Christine Brewer is a unique singer. She calls herself a “big lyric soprano,” and I think that is a fair description. This is not a hard or piercing, laser-like voice of classic Wagnerians such as Birgit Nilsson or Gwyneth Jones; far from it. Brewer’s tones are soft-edged, often floated in mellowness and a wonderful variety of color. Her singing of Isolde’s love music in Act II was exquisitely modulated, and with light orchestration under it, floated hauntingly through the hall. The powerful singing required in Act I was also there, but it did not bowl one over through sheer volume. Brewer is well versed in the role, having sung it for a half dozen years, her German text and musical moods are convincing and apt, and her pitch in this difficult chromatic score was rock solid. She is a large handsome woman with great energy and musical integrity; when it comes time to hear her concept of Isolde in a favorable hall (such as the Metropolitan Opera) she could make Wagnerian musical history.

The Swedish mezzo soprano, Anne Sophie von Otter, famed for her Mozart and Strauss opera and lieder performances, was essaying Brangaene for the first time. Her bright appealing voice was entirely up to the task and her textual reading superlative.

LAPhil’s male singers were considerably less impressive. The experienced German tenor Christian Franz had good routine in his title part and represented Tristan’s emotions and agonies with effective body language. It was a pleasure to hear his idiomatic German, and to witness his command of the role’s drama. Alas, his voice was often inaudible, and when heard was afflicted with roughness and, when he was not shouting out his top, a shallow, sometimes under-pitched tone. In the response to King Mark’s address in Act I, Franz used a near-parlando to get his words across, and he found a measure of sympathetic appeal. I wish I could say this was an adequate vocal performance, but it was not. John Relyea worked hard to portray the angry King Mark, but he seemed young in the role and his fine bass voice a bit labored. The Finnish bass-baritone Jukka Rasilainen played Tristan’s companion Kurwenal with assurance if not with much beauty of voice or dignity of action. Other parts were taken by Thomas Rolf Truhitte as Melot, Michael Slattery as the Sailor’s Voice and Shepherd and Jinyoung Jang as the Steersman. Men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale were reliable and precise under the strong direction of Grant Gershon. They managed to end Act I with considerable excitement.

I have saved Esa-Pekka Salonen for last, for in Wagner the conductor is most often of the greatest importance, the first among equals. While the New Yorker magazine reports, in an article titled “The Anti-Maestro” [April 30], on these performances that Salonen “was precise in rhythm and rich in timbre; few conductors give as clean a beat or have so acute an ear for combinations of sounds,” indeed I found those qualities, but not much more — and there it lots more to conducting Wagner. There was also mention of “an unchecked heat in the playing” of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Such heat as I heard was generated by Mme. Brewer and some of the other singers. I had to conclude, based on this hearing, that Salonen is not much the Wagnerian. He reminded me of Pierre Boulez in this repertory, just let the music play itself and don’t do much. Sometimes that’s not a bad idea. But Salonen had minimal feel for shaping the Wagnerian phrase or the play and accents of dynamics. The big effects were in place; the nuances were not, and the sinuous eroticism of the love duet never took hold. From the first opening chords of the Vorspiel the Wagnerian mysterioso was absent. By the resolution of the ‘Tristan chord’ at the close of the Liebestod, we knew we’d heard an eventful Tristan, but one in which some of the parts were decidedly more interesting than the whole.

© J. A. Van Sant 2007

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