For more information about the original performances of The Tristan Project in Los Angeles and its performances in Paris, go to my website by clicking here.
"In a New Space and Time, a Classic Story of Tragic Love" by Allan Kozinn
When “The Tristan Project” was first presented in Los Angeles, at the end of 2004, it was clear that it would be one of the highlights of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At heart, it was a concert opera, but in a multimedia conception that promised to be so ingenious that listeners traveled long distances to catch it, and talked about it for months. The buzz started again when Lincoln Center announced that it would bring the production to New York, and now that it’s here — the first of two performances was on Wednesday evening at Avery Fisher Hall — it is a hot topic again, and a hot ticket as well: the performance was sold out, with the best seats priced at $500.
In its original version “The Tristan Project” offered Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” over three nights, each devoted to a single act, performed along with works by 20th-century composers whom Wagner influenced. “Tristan” itself was presented in two simultaneous versions: Mr. Salonen’s, in the world of sound, with stage movement directed by Peter Sellars; and Bill Viola’s on video, in symbol-heavy imagery that parallels the opera’s action and pulls its philosophical underpinnings into view. A mute (and sometimes nude) Tristan and Isolde move through water (purification) and fire (passion), or melt into a single image within a grainy video haze.
That was the original, as opposed to a high-tech concert performance of “Tristan,” which is what came to New York. Here, the auxiliary works were dropped, and the opera was played at a single sitting. For the occasion the Avery Fisher Hall stage was extended to accommodate the large orchestra and the singers, although the chorus (the Concert Chorale of New York) was in the top balcony, and soloists occasionally sang from the balconies as well. A large screen was suspended over the orchestra for Mr. Viola’s video, and monitors carried the English supertitles.
Mr. Salonen provided a hint of how his part of the performance would unfold in a sumptuous, dramatically paced and dynamically fluid account of the Prelude, in which the Los Angeles orchestra produced a magnificent sound that it maintained throughout the five-and-a-half-hour opera. Illness took at least a theoretical toll on the cast: As Tristan, Alan Woodrow was replaced by Christian Franz, and a program note said that Christine Brewer, the Isolde, “wishes the audience to know that she is still recuperating from a stomach flu.”
The caveat was unnecessary: apart from a few strident high notes, Ms. Brewer gave a regal portrayal of Isolde, and sang with a power and solidity that built toward a transfixing “Liebestod.” Mr. Franz’s deep-hued Tristan largely matched Ms. Brewer’s performance in heft, flexibility and emotional range.
The mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, also in radiant voice, conveyed the weight of Brangäne’s sense of responsibility for the lovers’ sufferings. Jukka Rasilainen’s compassionate account of Kurwenal, Thomas Rolf Truhitte’s rich-hued Melot, and John Relyea’s sepulchral-voiced König Marke contributed to the production’s emotional temperature as well.
The “Tristan Project” in New York might have been more modest than its Los Angeles counterpart, but it was an innovative conception of a core work, and we’ll take what we can get. The New York Philharmonic’s nearest efforts have been frothy musical-theater evenings, like “My Fair Lady” and “Candide.” That getting a production like this into Avery Fisher Hall requires importing it from across the continent is truly outrageous. But that’s the state of things, and it’s emblematic of the difference between these two orchestras.