Much ado about pretty much. The Tristan Project – note that it isn’t called Tristan und Isolde – has been percolating in one form or another for two years on two continents. On Wednesday, it finally arrived in New York, and the Wagner-starved multitudes cheered the show. We do mean show.
Essentially this was a concert performance, the sort in which singers share the stage with the orchestra, flip pages on music-stands and sip water between solos. But – a big but – the orchestra was the fine Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the conductor was the firebrand Esa- Pekka Salonen. Unfortunately, the music-makers were dwarfed by a stream of pretty movies created by Bill Viola, and fussy directorial embellishments were added by Peter Sellars. It was all oh-so-artsy, oh-so- trendy.
Sound proved more satisfying than sight. Salonen provided always propulsive if sometimes prosaic leadership, favouring tension over introspection. At least it was good tension. Christian Franz, a late replacement for Alan Woodrow, imbued Tristan with a touch of poetry, and sustained both stamina and incisiveness in the process. Although officially indisposed, Christine Brewer managed enough glorious moments to confirm her exalted place among the thin ranks of contemporary Isoldes. Anne Sofie von Otter introduced the problematic contrast of a lightweight, soft-toned Brangäne. Jukka Rasilainen roared roughly as a tough Kurwenal, and John Relyea droned darkly as a youthful King Mark.
Unfortunately, Viola trivialised the monumental score at every turn. He illustrated Isolde’s narrative and curse with a distracting slow-motion striptease for the protagonists’ videogenic doubles, and called the nudity exposé a purification ritual. Elsewhere he splashed irrelevant water-images across the screen – endless aquatic ballets and enough wavy seascapes to induce mass mal de mer. Reinforcing the pretentious claptrap, Sellars dabbled in spatial and acoustic gimmickry, making some characters pop up in side-loges and banishing the sailors’ chorus to the top balcony. Most telling, the ageless enfant terrible contributed a chatty programme synopsis that included this gem of enlightenment: “King Mark was Tristan’s first lover.” Who would have guessed?
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