Tristan und Isolde

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
5 December 2004
Disney Hall Los Angeles
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanClifton Forbis
IsoldeChristine Brewer
BrangäneJill Grove
KurwenalAlan Held
König MarkeStephen Milling
MelotThomas Studebaker
Ein junger SeemannMichael Slattery
Ein HirtMichael Slattery
SteuermannJinyoung Jang
Opera News

Glorious music-making was the hallmark of the trifurcated, multimedia Tristan und Isolde presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in December at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The semi-staged offering featured magnificent singing from a top-drawer cast, headed by Christine Brewer and Clifton Forbis as the eponymous lovers, and phenomenal playing by the orchestra and its principals – all led with ardor and a vivid command of detail by the Philharmonic’s music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

This traversal of Wagner’s epic love song was billed as the world premiere of The Tristan Project, a projected decade-long, haut-concept collaboration between Salonen, iconoclastic stage director Peter Sellars and pioneering video artist Bill Viola. The triumvirate’s first stab at a fully-staged realization of its postmodern gesamtkunstwerk is due in April at the Paris National Opera, which is producing The Tristan Project in collaboration with Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

At Disney Hall, each of the opera’s three acts was presented separately on successive dates during two weekend runs (Friday and Saturday evenings, Sunday afternoons), with the first part of each concert featuring a work influenced by Tristan und Isolde.

This deconstrunctionist approach meant that patrons had to shell out thrice to hear one complete opera. On the upside, the program openers were all performed in conventional concert manner without the distracting contributions by Sellars and Viola that undermined the splendid musical performances of Wagner’s masterpiece (seen December 3-5).

On the downside, only the third concert’s opening selection provided a compelling experience. This was the West Coast premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Cinq Reflets, a lush, melismatic thirty-minute, five-movement orchestral song cycle that the Finnish composer culled from her acclaimed 2000 opera L’Amour de Loin. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy as the Countess and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen as Jaufre Rudel were the excellent vocal soloists on December 5, and under Salonen’s direction, Saariaho’s entrancing textures gleamed in Disney Hall’s transparent acoustic.

In the Wagner portions, similar sonic magic ensued when Sellars left well enough alone and allowed the excellent cast to simply sing from the stage. However, perhaps because the director’s provocative proclivities were constrained by the hall’s open, semicircular stage and the lack of sets, costumes, props and lighting, he often resorted to dispersing singers around the auditorium.

This device proved occasionally effective in Act I, where Sellars used Disney Hall’s curvy shape to represent Tristan’s ship. Thus, following an incandescent account by Salonen and his cohorts of the opening Prelude, the Sailor’s mocking shanty – splendidly sung by tenor Michael Slattery – rang out from high atop the rear balcony, as if from the crow’s nest. Later in that act, the resplendently intoned Kurwenal of bass-baritone Alan Held and the Tristan of Forbis – a sterling heldentenor in the making – held their tête-a-tête on the right-side balcony of the terrace level, while Brewer’s, soaring, voluptuous-voiced Isolde and the forceful Brangäne of mezzo-soprano Jill Grove argued onstage about the Irish princess’s fate.

But at other times, Sellars choreographed theatrical games of hide-and-seek for the singers, especially Brewer, Forbis and Grove, who would pop up here and there on various terraces and balconies, especially during Act II. Besides being distracting, these gimmicks also often resulted in poor balances between the orchestra and vocalists and were especially aurally disorienting for the many patrons seated on the sides of the house.

The most problematic element in this initial mounting of The Tristan Project, though, was Viola’s video contribution. Playing nearly continuously through all three acts on a thirty-six-by-twenty-foot screen that hid the iconic, curvilinear façade of Disney Hall’s massive new pipe organ (and also projected on a smaller screen high up at the opposite end of the hall for patrons seated behind the orchestra), Viola’s high-definition visuals were admittedly stunning. However, the artist’s videoscape – consisting primarily of actors shot in extreme slow motion and elemental images of water, trees, fire, rocks, sun and moon – too often competed for attention with the live performers’ interpretation of Wagner’s score, rather than complementing their thrilling efforts. Instead of being the focus of the production, Salonen and company frequently seemed merely a soundtrack, albeit a world-class one.

It was particularly regrettable that the sheer beauty of Brewer’s singing during the love potion sequence was visually accompanied by Viola’s intrusive images of two actors – seeming to represent Tristan and Isolde – disrobing molto largo and then being displayed for more than five minutes in their three-story high, fully frontal nude glory above the soprano. Brewer is a potent Wagnerian soprano of the first rank, and doesn’t need high-tech scenic folderol in order to convey Isolde’s fiery intensity. Even Viola’s beautifully rendered images of a body with arms outstretched, soaring from the waves into a blue light to conclude the opera was superfluous. Brewer’s singing of the Liebestod was transfiguration itself.


Financial Times

If the Los Angeles Philharmonic needed a grand enterprise to equal the opening of its new home last season, the orchestra has surely found it in its staged concert version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, conducted by music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, produced by Peter Sellars and accessorised by noted California video artist William Viola. Spread over three days, with Wagner-inspired scores preceding the main event, the package will resurface in more traditional format and with a different cast at the Paris National Opera in April.

Matching the lofty level of musicianship suffusing the performances in southern California will not be easy. The Finnish conductor’s leadership everywhere belied his reputation as an analytic, dry-eyed modernist. The score, which Salonen was attempting for the first time, emerged a luminous web of motives spun with an impeccable feeling for balances and an unerring thrust. What surprised was the romantic yearning, the obliterating passion that distinguishes the good from the memorable Tristan. In the 13th year of his tenure, Salonen has transformed the LA Philharmonic into an instrument of his will, an achievement evident from the almost imperceptible string entries in the Prelude to the sustained tension and release of the Liebestod.

Sellars’s production astutely capitalised on the idiosyncratic curving design, galleries and stairwells of Disney Hall, where singers expressed their desires or intoned their regrets over vast expanses of space. Fortunately, the acoustics of this auditorium flatters voices and several of them merited the flattery. Christine Brewer’s first complete American Isolde heralded a major Wagnerian, capable of the lyrical introspection, epic outbursts and irresistible authority demanded by this repertoire. Clifton Forbis’s Tristan, baritonal in timbre, heroic in proportion, generated immense pathos in the third act monologue. Mezzo Jill Grove introduced a formidable Brangäne, haunting in the watch. Alan Held’s oaken Kurwenal and Stephen Milling’s infinitely anguished Marke lent comparable lustre.

Although Viola’s vaunted contribution was widely publicised, the projections failed to provide an adequate visual correlative to the score. To illustrate the Liebestodwith a film of Tristan’s inert body emitting bubbles and ascending through a watery environment was at least a trivialisation, at most a misinterpretation of the composer’s intentions.

Allan Ulrich | December 8, 2004

LA Weekley


Times were when a big Broadway-bound show would spend a couple of weeks working out the kinks in an out-of-town tryout run, in Boston perhaps or New Haven. Something like that, if not exactly, is happening with the Philharmonic’s The Tristan Project, which ends its two-weekend run at Disney Hall as you read these words. It will then pack up and, sooner or later, head for Paris, where it begins a seven-performance stint at Opéra Bastille on April 12. As here, Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct, Peter Sellars will direct, and video magician Bill Viola will create the visuals. Unlike here, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde will be presented in one lump instead of three, one ticket at a 150-euro top ($210 or thereabouts) instead of three at $125 per. You won’t get the Los Angeles Philharmonic as the pit band, or the sound of Disney Hall, but you’ll get Ben Heppner as Tristan, Waltraud Meier as Isolde, and April in Paris. Go figure.

It hasn’t taken very long for the Philharmonic to find a way around the notion that Disney Hall was to be a concerts-only edifice, with opera relegated to that other place up the street. Regardless of whether the many important aspects of Bill Viola’s video mastery have anything all-embracing to say about the future of operatic production, it is at least true that his artistic insights mesh quite gorgeously with the interweave of symbolism that has kept Wagner’s inscrutable masterpiece alive and well for its 140 years of turbulent life. It hasn’t required much in the way of onstage gadgetry, merely a projection of Viola’s gorgeous conceptualization onto a large (35-by-20-foot) suspended screen (with another small screen up back for the folks in the “orchestra view” seats), to realize the magic in actual performance. This is already a step back — permanent, I hope — from the multi-screen and multi-mess creation that management imposed on the Berlioz Fantastique last season.

Three pairs of lovers are involved. One pair, on the stage or at various vantage points elsewhere in the hall, cope with the notes of Wagner’s score, with reasonable if not spectacular success: Christine Brewer, an imposing soprano with a considerable gift for making herself heard, and Clifton Forbis, whose darkish tenor takes on an unpleasant spread at times. (Danish basso Stephen Milling, in the dishwater-dull role of King Marke, is the only singer really worth staying awake for.) Two other pairs are the personages of Bill Viola’s screen, the fulfillments of the various levels of ecstasy that he and Peter Sellars have mined from the mysterious reaches of Wagner’s score. The “earthly” pair (Jeff Mills and Lisa Rhoden) are the embodiment of literal lovemaking, making their way through a barrier in most of Act 1 and then going at it hot ’n’ heavy in Act 2. The “heavenly” pair (John Hay and Sarah Steben), aerialists and trapeze artists by trade, epitomize all this with marvelous swoops through air, fire and water — the water being so pure and seductively bubbly as to constitute an art form of its own.

It’s easy enough to dismiss some of this as unnecessary monkeying with the classics, especially with the box-office economics of the one-in-three presentation; you also can’t help wondering at the fate of this production with a contemporary Paris audience. (See last Sunday’s New York Times magazine.) On the other hand, this is a Tristan of extraordinary beauty: the creators’ responses to what lies deep within this extraordinary work of art, the visual beauty of the material chosen to symbolize those responses, and the insight with which that material is used — the changing light on the tree at sunrise in Act 2, to note one image I cannot get out of my head. And then there’s the matter of just the sound of Tristan und Isolde as performed by Salonen and the Philharmonic in Disney Hall. That’s something else you don’t easily get out of your head.

Someone should find a way to set Peter Sellars to music. It would take a full complement of oratorical Wagnerian brass, plus a gaggle of Mendelssohnian woodwinds, playing so quickly as not to remember what they’ve just performed, plus a few other instruments to giggle and go “hee-haw” at times. At one of the Tristan Project pre-concert talks, the matter came up of why the opera was being spooned out piecemeal, one act at a time, to Los Angeles audiences. This launched a Sellars verbal rocket of breathtaking trajectory, touching upon matters in Tristan und Isolde such as epic dimension, inner gravity, and the marvel of Wagner’s multilayered orchestration and plot management.

There is just too much in the whole of the opera, Sellars proclaimed in so many words, to cram into a single evening. That may come as a surprise to a couple of people I know. Many of Sellars’ points rank as high-class music-appreciation stuff, and you can find them in some of the very best textbooks as part of the respect paid to the whole of Tristan und Isolde as the three-act entity that has gladdened operagoers around the world for well over a century — including a few here in Los Angeles, where the Philharmonic, as it happens, participated in a pretty good Tristan, with sets by David Hockney, back in 1987.

As partial recompense for the bit-by-bit treatment of Tristan, Salonen and the orchestra preceded each of the single acts with music whose composers owed much of their own outlooks to the upheavals Wagner’s masterpiece had created. First came Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite: not the entire work, just the three (of six) movements that Berg himself expanded for full string orchestra — thus, however, omitting the one movement that actually includes a quote from Tristan. On the second night there was the orchestral suite, pretty but aimless, that Erich Leinsdorf cobbled together from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Finally came a suite from the most recent Tristan-inspired masterpiece, Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de Loin, with Heidi Grant Murphy and Kyle Ketelsen as medieval romancers thwarted by destiny. Hugely successful at its 2000 Salzburg premiere, and at Santa Fe two years later, Saariaho’s opera fairly throbs with music of almost painful beauty, worthy in both plotline and sound to flourish in the Wagnerian shadow. After the final music in this suite, a latter-day Liebestod hauntingly sung by Grant Murphy, I would have willingly gone home. Only the prospect of those dark, dark strings at the start of Tristan’s final act kept me in the hall.


User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere, HO
Technical Specifications
256 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 438 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A semi-staged production by Peter Sellars