Skip to main content Skip to footer site map
Review: THE TRISTAN PROJECT at LA Philharmonic

Review: THE TRISTAN PROJECT at LA Philharmonic

The score soars but the video flounders at the LA Philharmonic

LA Philharmonic's Tristan Project allows audiences to experience a first-rate performance of Richard Wagner's 1859 Tristan und Isolde. It is difficult to imagine a better team than conductor Gustavo Dudamel and director Peter Sellars to allow Wagner's score to freely and mystically float through the Walt Disney Concert Hall uninhibited by stage mechanics and repurpose every inch of the space to paint reverberating aural images of sailors at sea, looming grand cities, and lovers smitten with each other beyond the bounds of this mortal plane. Wagner's score seems to prefigure the way cinematic music would be composed a century after his death and conveys a captivating dramatic story free from any compulsory elements of theatrical design. With a limited lighting plot, singers all in black, and a simple platform as the only set, the music is allowed to reign as the star of the three evenings.

Michael Weinius' Tristan is all rich earth and fire. At moments of intensity, his voice blends with the orchestra, adding a trembling vigor that joins with reverberating percussion and tender berths of cellos. Meanwhile, Miina-Liisa Värelä's Isolde has an airy lightness that wafts like incense above the flutes and violas while maintaining a rich, buttery, smoothness that cues us in on her lovesickness. As the wise but scheming Brangäne, mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau is the sharp, bright knife point that can cut through the warm butter of Värelä's voice as it seductively slides about the pan. With all of the simple stillness in this staging, only Ryan Speedo Green's Kurwenal seems trapped without movement. During no one else's performance do we feel like we are witnessing an evening of "park and bark".

All my compliments to the score, the singers, the philharmonic, the master choral, and the stage director aside, the piece would have flourished more if it had been presented as Tristan und Isolde rather than The Tristan Project. The video accompaniment created by visual artist Bill Viola does not match the expertise of- nor enhance the experience of- the other elements of the performance, and at times, it is a detraction from the overall success of the piece. Right off the bat, shaky footage of waves with harsh cuts that neither seem entirely intentional nor informed by the score loop on the screen. The framing is uninteresting and not quite pleasing enough to be a screensaver, but for lack of a better reference point, the effect of a screensaver behind the orchestra is achieved. We know from the program note that our story begins on a ship. Even without it, the haunting opening melody seems irrefutably nautical. Do we need a video representation to further explain the locale to us?

In this same vein, Viola has provided insight to his interpretation of the libretto in an extensive program note. It is rife with nuance and clearly informs Sellars' concise synopsis. However, few of the intricacies Viola has located in the libretto exist on the screen. Water serves as a visual metaphor for cleansing in act one, fire illustrates passion in act two. These are base-level associations that do not heighten our experience of the opera. Over the course of the three nights, there were three images that will resonate with me. Isolde lighting candles and existing as a silhouette that makes even Kubrick's treatment of Barry Lyndon seem harsh and overbearing, plus two trick photography shots of water in motion- a recurring motif in Viola's video installations. It seems Viola had a few moments of inspiration and then filled in the rest with un-cohesive, second-rate stock footage.

The projection and framing of the video in Walt Disney Concert Hall also seemed like an afterthought. Audiences would have a more engaging relationship with this piece if they attended with their own blindfold. Wagner's score under Dudamel conjures a ship tossed about at sea and lovers at the brink of peril better than whatever Viola has thrown up on the screen.

Photos: Unique Coalition Launches Catch Up California Campaign At Rally To Fund Performing Photo
An unusual coalition of management and labor launched a kick-off event on Friday, January 27 to secure budgeting for SB 1116, the groundbreaking arts funding bill that passed the state legislature and was signed into law last year, but remains unfunded in the most recent budget.

The Road Theatre Company Now Accepting Submissions for 14th Annual SUMMER PLAYWRIGHTS FEST Photo
The Road Theatre Company's submission process is now open for new material to be considered for their upcoming playwrights festival. 

California Premiere Of Lucas Hnaths THE THIN PLACE to be Presented at Echo Theater Company Photo
Abigail Deser directs the California premiere of The Thin Place by Obie Award-winning playwright Lucas Hnath, running March 18 through April 24 at Atwater Village Theatre.

YOGANANDANCE Returns This Weekend Photo
YOGANANDANCE - The immersive show is to revitalize the heart of Los Angeles in the Arts District. YOGANANDANCE goal is to unite the local businesses and local communities weekly for a Sunday gathering to sing, pray, eat, and get together in the spirit of peace. The event will also strive to help the local underprivileged with the support of local businesses, Hi Bakery, Hanks, AMP Lofts, and many others.

From This Author - Andrew Child

Andrew is a multimedia artist whose work as a director, animator, choreographer, performer, and designer has been seen on stages and screens all over Boston, Argentina, and Italy. His writing&... (read more about this author)

Interview: Warren Leight of HOME FRONT at The Victory TheatreInterview: Warren Leight of HOME FRONT at The Victory Theatre
January 9, 2023

“There’s a bit of the feeling of that famous kiss in Times Square at the beginning of the play—- a feeling of infinite possibility at the end of the war, which is a version of America we all know. Many people don’t realize how harshly the pendulum swung back after that.”

Review: THE TRISTAN PROJECT at LA PhilharmonicReview: THE TRISTAN PROJECT at LA Philharmonic
December 20, 2022

It is difficult to imagine a better team than conductor Gustavo Dudamel and director Peter Sellars to allow Wagner’s score to freely and mystically float through the Walt Disney Concert Hall uninhibited by stage mechanics and repurpose every inch of the space to paint reverberating aural images.

Review: BOB BAKER'S NUTCRACKER at Bob Baker Marionette TheaterReview: BOB BAKER'S NUTCRACKER at Bob Baker Marionette Theater
December 11, 2022

BBMT is currently delivering a treat for all ages with their spunky rendition of Tchaikovsky’s popular Christmas ballet, complete with a team of evil mice, gracefully dancing sugarplum fairies, a growing Christmas tree, and all manner of delightful surprises.

Review: MINDPLAY at The Geffen PlayhouseReview: MINDPLAY at The Geffen Playhouse
November 20, 2022

Vinny DePonto is an extraordinarily engaging performer who, in front of a simple white backdrop, captivates the crowd like a bonafide vaudevillian.

Interview: Armina LaManna of WARRIOR QUEEN: ANAHIT THE BRAVE at Imagine TheatreInterview: Armina LaManna of WARRIOR QUEEN: ANAHIT THE BRAVE at Imagine Theatre
November 2, 2022

Rather than paint a mural of multicultural children holding hands around the globe or undertake some other trite pass at celebrating diversity with young people, Imagine Theatre's artistic director, Armina LaManna chooses to prioritize stories from the intricate 'cultural fabric of LA', working equitably with local artists to share the narratives through new adaptations fused with music, dance, and puppetry. In 2019, the group premiered a new production of The Tale of Turandot which celebrated LA's rich Chinese culture. Their upcoming Warrior Queen: Anahit the Brave honors the 'large Armenian diaspora in Southern California'. I chatted with LaManna about her fundamental beliefs about theatre and her desires to infuse Los Angeles' theatre scene with a deeper respect and appreciation for children's theatre.