‘Tristan’ Project Redux: Multimedia Immersion As A Concert Triptych

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The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Tristan Project includes silent films by Bill Viola. Here, Tristan (portrayed by an actor) walks into the flames as the Act II Love Duet begins. (Photos by Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging)

LOS ANGELES – It was Back To The Future time at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Dec. 9-11. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was offering a reprise of The Tristan Project, a semi-staged, three-part multimedia production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from Dec. 2004 that, in its time, signaled a pathway for more such multimedia events in concert halls down the road.

Some of the names had changed — the cast, the conductor (now Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra’s music director since 2009), many of the musicians in the orchestra. Others remained in place — stage director Peter Sellars in a relatively restrained role for him, visual artist Bill Viola, who devised a sometimes dazzling, sometimes amorphous alternate universe for Tristan in the form of a silent film. Overall, it felt like every bit as much of an event as it did in previous incarnations.

Eric Owens as King Marke, Michael Weinius as Tristan, and Miina-Liisa Värelä as Isolde.

Disney Hall was but a little over a year old when The Tristan Project first hit the boards, and it was the most audacious project that the Phil had undertaken in the hall’s short history at that point. The original production, under the baton of then-music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, was split into three consecutive concerts, one act per day. There was some precedent for that: Karl Böhm’s now-revered live recording of Tristan at Bayreuth in 1966 was done one act per day, and Leonard Bernstein’s 1981 live recording and filming of Tristan in Munich also was a one-act-per-evening job, although Bernstein’s concerts were separated by months instead of hours. In addition to Wagner, each act in 2004 was preceded before intermission by a piece written subsequently under, or against, the influence of Tristan — Berg’s Lyric Suite for Act I, a suite from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande for Act II, and Kaija Saariaho’s Cinq Reflets (which grew out of her opera L’amour de loin) for Act III.

Ryan Speedo Green was a standout as Kurwenal.

The next time the Phil put on Tristan, in April 2007, Salonen led the whole opera in one evening, as was done at the project’s Paris premiere earlier. Whizzing ahead in time, Salonen — now the Phil’s conductor laureate — was to have revisited The Tristan Project here in October and November 2020, but the Covid shutdown intervened, the production was postponed, and Salonen’s priorities subsequently shifted toward the San Francisco Symphony

In the end, Salonen’s successor at the Phil, Dudamel, inherited the revival of the project with a completely different cast. While Salonen was ready to do the whole thing in one night again, Dudamel reverted to the original three-part plan, minus the bonus works that actually proved to be too much to absorb, with Wagner’s powerful music drowning out almost all memories of what came before.

Some complained in 2004 that splitting the production into three nights meant that Philharmonic audiences would have to bear the cost of three concert tickets to see one opera — albeit with a trio of bonus works. The 2022 edition looked to pose a similar burden: The cheapest seats in Disney Hall would cost $200 for three concerts and the most expensive ones a whopping $664 — nearly twice the amount charged in 2004. This time, the Phil tried to soften the blow by offering a three-concerts-for-the-price-of-two deal online, accessible with the code TRISTAN32. But still…

A scene from Act I showing Bill Viola’s film with actors as Isolde and Tristan.

Viola’s film, essentially unchanged from when I last saw it, attempts to dive into the philosophical underpinnings of Wagner’s text, turning Act I into a purification ritual for a pair of actors (not the live cast members) portraying Tristan and Isolde. When they are immersed in water, this seems to represent the floating state of freedom of two lovers from the brutal realities of life on Earth. The most erotic thing in the film is not the sight of naked bodies in Act I’s ritual (there is a warning in the program book about that), but rather the looks of pure enchantment as the actors gaze at each other in Act II’s “Love Duet.” Tristan’s walk into the flames as the Duet begins remains the signature image of the film: There is danger ahead, but he is pulled in by the force of obsessive love that will eventually consume and ultimately transfigure him. I found the film less distracting and more involving than it was when the production was new, mostly because one knows what to expect the third time around.

Sellars’ direction was mainly a matter of placing the singers at various levels of the surround-sound hall at various times, with a bit more stage action than there was in 2004 when most of the cast had scores in hand. Some of this positioning served Wagner well — the Steersman’s opening song from somewhere in the ether, Brangäne on the lookout from up high in the side balcony. Other opportu-nities were missed; it still doesn’t make sense to me to prohibit the lovers from rushing to each other just before the “Love Duet,” as the music insistently suggests. Sellars’ big coup de theatre remains the final scene of Act I, when the robust male contingency from the Los Angeles Master Chorale appears; the hall’s bright lights are turned on, and the orchestra thunders away in a blazing conclusion.

Dudamel proved to be a worthy trustee of the project in his first Tristan, getting the LA Phil to dig into the turbulent emotions of this most passionate of opera scores and luxuriate in the bliss of its meditations, with the Phil’s horn section sounding especially rich and mellow. As Tristans go, Dudamel leans toward the moderately fast end, clocking in at about 234 minutes. The range of major recordings runs from a race-car-paced 219 minutes for Böhm’s performance to an expansive 266 minutes for Bernstein’s (given this difference, Böhm’s famous comment about Bernstein — “For the first time, someone dares to perform this music as Wagner wrote it” — is a head-spinning volte-face). Yet Dudamel rarely seemed rushed, placing explosive passages astutely within the context of the whole.

Gustavo Dudamel ‘Dudamel proved to be a worthy trustee of the project.’

Dudamel was helped by a mostly strong cast with ample-sized voices that still occasionally sank beneath the broiling surfaces that he was whipping up. Tenor Michael Weinius’ Tristan rang loudly and clearly from wherever he was positioned, as did mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau as Brangäne. Soprano Miina-Liisa Värelä alternated between indignation and control as Isolde in Act I, soldiered carefully through Act II despite being “under the weather,” and really blossomed in Act III with a lovely, haunting “Liebestod.”

The fast-rising Ryan Speedo Green dominated the room every time his booming bass-baritone went into action as Kurwenal, even when in sorrowful contemplation. Bass-baritone Eric Owens was a somewhat shaky King Marke yet not inappropriately so, given the character’s advanced age. As for the other tenors, Robert Stahley’s Melot was approximate in pitch, while Arnold Livingston Geis sang the Steersman’s song richly.

Ultimately, it was the Los Angeles Philharmonic that produced the most thrilling ingredients of The Tristan Project — then and now. A final cycle runs Dec. 15-17 — another chance to hear Tristan liberated from the pit in all its voluptuous center-stage glory.