Tristan und Isolde, Los Angeles Opera, February 6, 2008; Tristan: John Treleaven; Isolde: Linda Watson; König Marke: Erik Halfvarson; Kurwenal: Juha Uusitalo; Brangäne: Lioba Brown; conductor: James Conlon; designer: David Hockney
Los Angeles Opera is in downtown LA—somewhat of an oxymoron–next to the enchanting Disney Hall designed by Frank Gehry. These are gorgeous buildings, but you have to scour the neighborhood for a cup of coffee and the snack supper you will need to eat at 5:30 to see you through the evening. We pass up the $140 seven-course menu at Paradis, ending up at the Colburn School cafeteria. Every student seems to carry an instrument case. While climbing a staircase into the opera hall plaza, it strikes us that the space seems a little unaccustomed to being approached on foot; you really are expected to arrive in a limo. Once you’re there, however, you find nice open space and a fountain.
Warming up the crowd of 150, our lecturer, Michael Hackett, describes how Wagner transformed the audience experience by dimming the house lights and democratizing the seating. He also invented the steam curtain. Our conductor, James Conlon, arrives to be “interviewed” for the preconcert lecture. His lively, information-laden remarks turn out mostly to reiterate his welcoming letter in the program notes, but he keeps people on the edge of their seats by talking right up to the warning bell at 6:46. When asked what got him interested in opera, he says a Met production of La Traviata he attended at the age of 12. He emphasizes how opera appeals to adolescent passion, making Tristan the ultimate experience. At that age, “it’s not love if it doesn’t hurt.” He makes a good case for how Wagner’s operas are a good exercise for the audience, donors, production, conductor, and singers to stretch their abilities and resources. After that, everything else seems easy.
Angelinos dote on designer David Hockney, as he reflects them in an admiring British mirror. His sets consist of primary colors, a bit of nursery-school whimsy. However, these sets trivialize and diminish the actors, making them look like dolls in a dollhouse, undercutting the emotional seriousness of the opera. They would suit Ruslan and Ludmilla, a fantasy opera, but they make Tristan und Isolde look cartoonish. The steeply raked stage handicaps the actors as they clamber up, stagger down, and limp across.
The costumes flatter the full-figured soprano, Linda Watson, more than Met designs do, however. King Mark’s costume seems too long for him, and so he has to gather it to walk. All trains drag and snag in Act 3’s patchy surface underfoot.
Some oddities: In Act 1 the last chorus is offstage, dulling its impact. In Act 2 the principals of the protracted philosophical discussion about night and day are like two stoned teenagers. In Act 3 Tristan seems to have been given very little stage direction. He crawls around aimlessly and rolls down the raked incline.
The voices, headed by Linda Watson and John Treleaven, are superb. As at Bayreuth, sometimes it is easier to just close your eyes and listen.
Margaret Shepherd is a member of the Boston Wagner Society.