The Tristan Reject
Not content with merely presenting the inscrutable masterpiece, the opera that changed the course of artistic thought forever, the Philharmonic offered further ennoblement under the rubric of “The Tristan Project.” First injected onto the Disney stage in 2004 with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde kibbled into three separate acts, three nights, three tickets (with some appropriate additional music added each time as curtain raiser), this time around there were also two very long nights of the complete opera at single but raised ticket prices. Enhancing the performances has been a “realization” by the eminent video artist Bill Viola, projected (that magic word again) onto a screen above the orchestra, with another screen up back for the folks up front. Peter Sellars is credited with the staging, which consisted mostly of getting people on and off the stage. Best of all, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic served as pit band. On to New York the whole shebang now goes, for a two-night stand in Lincoln Center’s crippled acoustics at higher prices.
Any questions? I have a couple. I wonder first about the artistic integrity in offering an opera – Tristan in particular, so musically interlocked – on three separate tickets. Opera companies, including our own next season, get by without such curious practices. My next question has to do with sight versus sound: Wagner’s music in the gorgeous realization by Esa-Pekka and his orchestra in Disney Hall, rising to fulfill every curve of Frank Gehry’s design, versus the flat images of Viola’s video translations, which stop at the edge of their frames. It becomes a clash of dimensions; even a stage set – David Hockney’s for the L.A. Opera, which we’ll see next year, with its fabulous lighting – suggests an infinity that reaches out to embrace the music. Viola’s – and I am trying hard to circumnavigate the fact that this second time around, I am not all that crazy about his Tristan visuals anyhow – does not.
Beyond his staging, Sellars contributed a titillating program note, two pages of small print retelling the Tristan und Isolde story with a homoerotic overlay that posits a lovers’ relationship for Tristan and King Marke, with Isolde brought in to silence the gossip columnists. This should delight Sellars’ academic colleagues at UCLA, known for their outing of notable personages in the artistic galaxy. In any case, basso John Relyea’s dreary performance of Marke’s interminable “How could you?” litany, upon the discovery of the lovers’ betrayal, suggested that Tristan, whatever affair he was in, was well out of it.
Aside from Christine Brewer’s larger-than-life, impressively accurate Isolde, in fact, there isn’t much joyousness to report about the singing. Canadian tenor Alan Woodrow, the Tristan, has the bright, plangent tone of his countryman Jon Vickers, but in both performances I saw last week, his wanderings from pitch made him almost unlistenable. (Past deadline, Christian Franz replaced him in the final performance; more next week.) Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter was gorgeous to hear in Debussy’s La Demoiselle Élue on one of the single-act nights, but she was miscast as Brangauml;ne in the opera itself, and her song of warning in the second act did not, as it should, merge into the moonlight that flowed, radiant and seductive, night after night, from Salonen’s magical orchestra.
Finland 2, Norway 0
Salonen was also on hand last week to curate the final event in this season’s Monday Evening Concerts at Zipper Hall and welcome its composers, Norway’s Rolf Wallin and Finland’s Kimmo Hakola, the latter a former classmate of Salonen’s from that legendary class at the Sibelius Academy, a veritable hotbed of compositional originality.
And indeed, it was a chamber concerto by Hakola that won most hearts in this large crowd, a brightly scored work for 11-member mixed ensemble starting off Furioso, ending Misterioso and encasing a middle-movement Amoroso so aswirl in amorous harmonies that nobody seemed to want it to end. After intermission, a few more hearts were won with Capriole, another Hakola charmer, shorter and full of strange turns – including a reminder of Finland’s part-Mongolian ancestry. Two works by Wallin, a collection of miniatures more attractive in their titles than in sound, and an ongoing and ongoing piece for improvising singer – the phenomenal Sidsel Endresen – in a computerized soundscape, won fewer hearts all told.
Performances through the evening of unfamiliar music were remarkable; the group included the full membership of the Calder Quartet, pianist Gloria Cheng – without whom half of Los Angeles’ music making would disappear – and visitors clarinetist Carol McGonnell and cellist Claire Bryant. Thus ended, with great success, a concert season that many feared would never happen. Organizer, administrator and everything but dishwasher Justin Urcis tells me that the next season begins, at Zipper, on December 3.
Here’s a where-has-he-been-all-my-life name for you: Grigori Frid. Born in Petrograd in 1915, he was apparently an influential Russian composer throughout his life, through many regimes. His monodrama for singer and small orchestra, setting passages from The Diary of Anne Frank, Grove’s Dictionary tells me, is popular in many German houses. Deservedly so, as last week’s performances by the Long Beach Opera made clear.
The work itself lasts about an hour. Andreas Mitisek, the company’s artistic director, extended the evening with the help of a Holocaust survivor named Laura Hillman, who lives nearby, who has published a memoir, and who, of course, would now be the age of Anne Frank had she lived. Mrs. Hillman sat onstage and read excerpts from her book interspersed into the 21 passages from the Diary that Frid had set to music. His music, reminiscent of some of Prokofiev’s bright, edgy film scores, was flung out by an expert nine-piece band. The songs and bits of dialogue were delivered with charm, grace and the stuff of heartbreak by a remarkable Armenian-American soprano, Ani Maldjian.
The whole thing took place not in any kind of auditorium, but in a basement space adjoining a parking garage at the Sinai Temple in West L.A. The walls were crude; the ceiling was low; the performing space was something you could almost trip over. You could, in other words, transport yourselves to Otto Frank’s attic in Amsterdam. Very clever: This was a transporting evening in more ways than one.