Monday, May 07, 2007

The Tristan Project

Since I had never seen a full Wagner opera and since this promised to be something different, I bought tickets to the LA Philharmonic's production of Tristan and Isolde like four months ago. The reason I was curious was that it includes videos by Bill Viola. The opera lasted 5 hours with two half and hour intermissions. This being NY, after leaving downtown 45 minutes ahead of time, I still barely made it. There was no late seating so I ran, and so did everybody else, trying to make a 6 pm curtain. I had to take a cab because I'd waste too long getting to the subway. This was a perfect example of why we need that congestion pricing NOW. It is simply not acceptable that a car cannot go from Lafayette and Astor Place to Lincoln Center, which is really not that far, in less than 45 minutes. It's a drive that should take no more than 20. Even in Mexico City half an hour in traffic gets you farther. Manhattan is too small and narrow for each and every lonely asshole behind a steering wheel. Drivers can kiss my ass. Leave your fucking cars at home.
Back to the screaming:
So Wagner. Bastard Jew hater, wrote some of the most romantic music ever. Tristan and Isolde is basically an extended orgasm, punctuated by spurts of storytelling about a love potion that provokes love or death or both. It is the height of Romanticism, but like all operas it combines the sublime with the ridiculous. It has one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written and then it also has people screaming like banshees for hours about whether someone drank a potion or not. It doesn't help matters that Christiane Brewer, the soprano, who is the size of a monster truck, wanted the audience to let it be known that she was recuperating from a stomach flu (in a leaflet inside the program), so that her heroic efforts would be duly appreciated. I would file this under Dept. of Too Much Information, because, as she reached her high C's with full Wagnerian orchestra playing behind her, I kept hoping she didn't rip one.

Still, this production belonged more to the sublime than to the ridiculous. No helmets with horns on this one. No props. The orchestra is on stage. The characters are dressed in black, and the orchestra and chorus use other parts of the theater too, so that some trumpets were stationed next to us in the nosebleed section. This created some beautiful sound effects. Hovering over the orchestra is a giant screen that plays Bill Viola's videos. They do add a spiritual, mythical dimension to the work.
But back to the ridiculous: there you are, having ran to within an inch of your life to make it on time, and after about 2 hours, first intermission. You are sorely in need of bladder relief so you spend 90% of the half hour allotted standing in line for the women's bathroom that has THREE measly stalls. I hate Avery Fisher Hall. It was designed by a sadist. The five percent you have left you run down three flights of stairs in search of something to eat in order not to starve to death together with Isolde. And then you cram a lox and cream cheese sandwich into your mouth as you run up the stairs because you may not make it to the third act. Very relaxing, opera.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is my new love. He is young and handsome and directs with elegance and passion. I could see the man has class, even from the heights where I was perched. It musn't be easy to direct this huge, hodge podgy work. I mean, does it really have to take 5 hours to tell this tale? It takes Tristan two full acts to kick the bucket. There is a lot of boring exposition. I would cut to the chase and just hear the Liebestod and the gorgeous beginning of the act in which Tristan is recovering and then decides to tell us his life story. I lost count of what act it was.

The Viola videos: some of them are truly mesmerizing, simple and meditative, absolutely beautiful and a great counterpoint to the teutonic upheavals going on on stage. They made the work spiritual and poignant, although at some point in the proceedings it seemed Mr. Viola ran out of ideas. Some of the videos are beautifully lit, and stunningly made, probably in high-def, and look gorgeous. Others seemed to have been shot with a camcorder and were not that impressive. But in general they created an archetypal mood, a transcendent, serene, beautiful place that did not distract from the music, but enhanced it.
Tristan and Isolde is such an ironic, dramatic, romantic tale that it is quite moving, especially in this production. The stage director, Peter Sellars, understands that the music doesn't really need but the minimum of stagecraft and illusion. All the emotion, oceans of it, is contained within it. It was a great production, as far as I can tell.

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