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James Conlon
17 Feb 2008

LA Opera: Tristan und Isolde

My Valentine’s Day gift came a bit early courtesy of Los Angeles Opera. Of course, it is to be hoped that your own celebration has a happier outcome than that of opera’s most famous Love Couple, “Tristan und Isolde.”

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Los Angeles Opera

Above: James Conlon


Although on face value the piece might serve as a cautionary tale against sharing any adult beverages with your love interest du jour, the LA production persuasively plumbed the work’s musical depths and romantic sentiments, and made a loving Valentine indeed out of the mystic beauty contained in Wagner’s finest Gesamtkunstwerk.

David Hockney’s evocative scene design is being seen in its second revival, having premiered in LA in 1987. It remains quite a handsome and effective production, well-maintained, and beautifully lit by Duane Schuler. Indeed, the deceptively monochromatic look of many structural surfaces takes the light exceptionally well, and the transformative powers of different strong color filters created masterful delineation of the story’s quicksilver moods. The judicious use of specials, area lighting and tight follow spots heightened the shifting destinies of the principal characters.

A modern-art re-imagining of the structural elements of Act One’s ship included a colorful, broadly striped raked deck receding with forced perspective; wildly stylized sails and colorful draperies, akimbo in the wind; and a chaise for “Isolde” that would not be out of place in a Picasso cubist drawing. Act Two’s fateful garden featured a similar rake, with a grove of trees receding at stage left, topped with cut-out boughs right out of a Matisse scrapbook; and a rather more realistic fortress wall running the length of stage right, the balcony of which looked to be “Juliet’s” famous perch, borrowed from Verona.

The serene field in Act Three is arguably the the most fanciful structure, rising on the upstage rake to include a sort of shapely “splashing wave” of green meadow. A couple of well-placed field stones are framed by a large cutout tree branch just behind the proscenium. All of this set was quite colorless at first, commenting on “Tristan’s” coma, then catching fire in the colored lights to great effect as his agitation mounts.

treleaven.john.pngJohn Treleaven (Tristan)

While all of this worked well enough, it has to be said that Mr. Hockney’s highly individual decorative gifts did seem to root the visuals in an artistic vocabulary of, well, twenty years ago. And, for all the imagination that the set and lights embodied, the costumes were merely (though not badly) Prince Valiant Standard Issue, albeit in faaaaaaaaaabulous colors. Our heroine looked especially lovely in her deep wine gown --- well, okay, okay, with the sole misjudgment of plopping a squatty crown with clinging veil on her head to meet “King Marke,” which had the dire effect of reducing her visually, however briefly, to a pissed off Smurf.

Music Director James Conlon brought his considerable experience to bear and led a richly detailed, rhythmically propelling, dramatically taut, and downright lavish reading of this glorious score. To name but one superb moment in an afternoon of abundant delights, the aching and longing of the Act Three prelude has seldom been so deeply felt and profoundly affecting. From those first familiar arching phrases and restless chords, he was in full command of his forces, and shaped the proceedings with passion and intelligence.

watson.linda.pngLinda Watson (Isolde)

Balance with the stage was sometimes another matter, but only sometimes, and then only when the principals were singing rapid declamation in their lower registers. One such time was in “Brangaene’s” important exposition where the beautiful cello solo, meant to be commenting, was instead competing.

It must said that the Dorothy Chandler is a notoriously patchy house for acoustics, and that Wagner himself was not always careful in balancing the voice with the large band. Still, with that apologia comes the avoidable reality that the poorly amplified chorus throughout Act I sounded as though they were singing in the subterranean men’s room. Still, if I have heard this luminous piece better-served instrumentally, I can’t recall when it was.

Of course, the supremely difficult vocal challenges of the title roles can either be legend builders or more often, voice shredders. In any generation we count ourselves lucky to find one duo that can encompass these multi-layered demands. Happily, in LA, the ol’ Helden-Meter tilted decisively to the success side with the committed portrayals and well-paced assumptions by the experienced stage “lovers” of John Treleaven and Linda Watson.

The tenor really has a tougher time of it than the soprano, going from the lengthy ecstatic outpourings of the Love Duet, right into the even lengthier steady crescendo of Act Three’s delirious lament. Mr. Treleaven brought an assured vocal presence, handsome enough demeanor, and tragic bearing to his assignment. If he does not have Ben’s burnished tone, well, small matter, as his rather bright sound was pleasant to listen to, and he could muster enough heft for credible, audible dramatic statements. Not surprisingly, a bit of fatigue crept into his extended death scene, but nonetheless he husbanded his gifts and scored all the major points.

I first heard Linda Watson as DC’s “Bruennhilde” in “Die Walkuere” and my impressions were largely confirmed here. Her “Isolde” was strongly and musically sung with a warm voice of considerable amplitude, marked by a generous vibrato that imbues each phrase with a very womanly presence. She is a major league player in the Isolde Sweepstakes, and her “Liebestod” was memorably delivered.

I did wish that she would not seek to pulverize certain climactic high notes but rather just allow them to ring full out. The extra energy she occasionally invests in these disparate top notes sends them fraying a little, and finds them losing the focused core of the pitch. Too, in the complicated and heated overlapping exchanges of the love duet, the tone at top went a little strident at full tilt. Still, she is understandably numbered among today’s very top interpreters of the Irish Princess, and the audience was unreserved in their appreciation of her outstanding efforts.

Lioba Braun is a singer with a lovely sound, beautiful stage presence, and wonderful musical gifts, but while I really like a little more bite in the tone for “Brangaene,” her “Watch” was exquisitely sung, and a highpoint of her portrayal. Juha Uusitalo offered a rather lackluster account of “Kurwenal” in the first two acts; so much so, that I was unprepared for the searing vocalism he brought to bear in his great scene in Act Three. Suddenly I felt I wanted to hear this artist again in a larger assignment.

Veteran bass Eric Halfvarson brought all of his stage savvy and colossal voice to the small role of “King Marke,” hitting every money moment squarely on target. Gregory Warren was doubled as sweet-voiced “Young Sailor” and “Shepherd.” In his few well-sung phrases as “Melot,” Brian Mulligan displayed a gorgeous baritone and well-schooled (if not quite idiomatic) German.

What to say about Thor Steingraber’s stage direction? Generally speaking, I found the blocking efficient at best, indifferent at worst. The love duet especially is a hard nut to crack. I mean, with the orchestra in full “Geschrei” the two lovers/soloists just simply have to — have to — sing front. And so they did, but in wholly unimaginative placement and movement. There was nothing terribly “wrong” with it. Just nothing “interesting” about it either.

There were compensations: “Brangaene’s” indecision, and subsequent serving up of the love potion was as clearly staged as I have ever seen it, and the end of the “Liebestod” was inspired. Instead of “Isolde” drooping on poor “Tristan” or just fading away, or just standing there (sorry Richard, neither the text nor the music really help much in explicitly defining her as dying of love), here our hero rose from the dead to join the heroine in the icy blue lighting special, put his hands over hers which she had extended in ecstasy, and then enfolded both of them in his loving final embrace. It was a great solution, and one I can recommend to other producers.

Cupid’s arrow may or may not not find its mark this Valentine’s Day, but luckily for me at least, LA Opera’s traversal of “Tristan und Isolde” has almost totally fulfilled my seasonal romantic longings.

James Sohre

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