Wagner Notes

Katherine Syer
March 2023

Rare is the chance to experience the first public performances of Tristan und Isolde led by a conductor as experienced as Gustavo Dudamel. When Esa-Pekka Salonen launched the Tristan Project in 2004, he was making his debut with Wagner’s formidable score. Conceived for the LA Philharmonic in the still new Walt Disney Concert Hall, the series of performances featured one act each of the opera, partnered with complementary repertoire. This concert version then morphed into a somewhat more traditional (semi-staged) operatic presentation, with the three acts united and a pit orchestra, which Salonen led at the Paris Opéra. Ten other cities have since experienced a version of the Tristan Project. Returning to its venue of origin on Dec. 7, 8, and 9, with Dudamel at the helm for the first time, this Tristan Project presented only the opera, with each act standing on its own, over three successive evenings. Disney Hall, with its ebbing, wooden architectural forms, remains an amply evocative space for unfurling emotions as the lovers sail for Cornwall. Peter Sellars personally directed the revival. Bill Viola’s engrossing original video designs, never intended as closely coupled illustrations of the dramatic action, were projected on a large vertical screen above the orchestra.

With the orchestra onstage, Dudamel seized the potential for the music’s direct, visceral impact in the Prelude’s opening measures. Vertical weightiness conveyed gravitas, stockpiling raw energy that later fueled climactic sonic swells. Textures weren’t always securely clean, but the mounting sense of a devastating revelation remained coherent. In its aftermath, an exquisitely controlled, otherworldly double bass postlude and transition to the first act served as an invitation to a theatrical experiment.

With only a bench, by way of props, and almost no naturalistic personenregie, the experiment rests largely on Disney Hall as a theatrical world extending beyond the concert stage. Wagner himself explored offstage spaces for extended acoustical effects, blurring the distinction between the real and the imaginary. The Sailor’s opening folk song is a case in point, as are Brangäne’s warnings in Act II and the shepherd’s “Alte Weise” in Act III.

In Act I, we first glimpse Kurwenal and Tristan above stage level, at the front railing of the auditorium section overlooking stage left. Their remoteness also amplifies the gulf of awareness (or acceptance) of inner truths existing between the parties. At the end of Act I, the entrances of the sailors’ chorus were a bit rough, placed as they were on even higher levels toward the rear of the auditorium, but the crude effect was apt. At the beginning of Act II, Brangäne and Isolde hover above stage right, dislocated from Dudamel’s brisk and breathless sound world, and the shimmering orchestral textures that follow.

As this staging deemphasizes physical or even conversational interaction, actual intimate moments carry special weight. There is thus a sense of relief when Tristan and Isolde relocate from opposite sides on the upper level to the front of the stage partway through Act II. Their embrace and shared glances are bathed in a blue shadow for the duet “O sink hernieder.” Less predictable, and more impactful, is the moment that King Mark rests his head on Tristan’s shoulder to share his feelings of betrayal after discovering the lovers.

Dudamel helped shape individual characterization, quite distinctively with Kurwenal, whose early music had a warm, convivial quality that crisper rhythms would have obliterated. Already in Act I, Kurwenal seemed an especially compassionate ally portrayed by Ryan Speedo Green, who fully fleshed out this capacious character, underscored by his intense physicality and palpable disquiet. By the opening of Act III, he had gained much sage composure-altogether a remarkable portrayal. Okka van der Damerau’s Brangäne assumed a powerful presence in Act I through her penetrating expression and sustained tone. As Isolde, Miina-Liisa Värelä was somewhat insecure on opening night, conveying little rhetorically, but she improved tremendously by Act II (ironically after being announced as under the weather), when she better showed the attractive top of her range. Michael Weinius’s tenor was well-centered, if sometimes two-dimensional. There was not much sense of a mysterious journey coming to light as Act II unfolded, but Weinius navigated an impressive psychological spectrum in Act III, digging into the role as Tristan yields to delirium. Eric Owens’ spun out lines, as King Mark, emphasized resignation more than despair, exquisitely partnered with a hollow-sounding bass clarinet solo in Act II.

Viola’s video designs have a life of their own, with their projection on a single screen. Vast stretches revel in slow motion in the elemental forces of fire and water, lending potency to the lovers’ reach beyond the here and now. A few key moments unlock transformational effects in the score, as when (toward the end of Act I) the lovers in the video slowly submerge under water as harps lusciously sound during the recall of music from the Prelude, after Tristan and Isolde have drunk what they believe to be poison. Another is the mirage-like image of a figure advancing from the distance as Tristan imagines Isolde’s arrival at Kareol in Act III. Dudamel unleashed the orchestra’s energy for maximal effect when Isolde actually appeared. Less rewarding, for me, is the video imagery in Act I setting up the lovers’ metaphysical journey.  The actors engage in a ritualistic purification ceremony, after slowly disrobing, with Isolde double projecting an ecstatic gaze at the prospect of death.

Dudamel, like Salonen eighteen years ago, followed up his cycles of the Tristan Project in LA by leading the operatic version in Paris. Taken together, these performances add considerable depth to an operatic career Dudamel has gradually cultivated since becoming the music director of the LA Philharmonic in 2009. His career is clearly taking flight in all directions. He had assumed the musical directorship of the Paris Opéra in 2021, and as of 2026 will shift his orchestral home base from LA to the New York Philharmonic as its music director.

Photos: Matthew Imaging/LA Philharmonic.

© Wagner Notes, March 2023, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Katherine Syer,

having taught at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana (Theatre/Musicology), joined the faculty at UCLA in 2019. Her areas of expertise include historical and contemporary opera production, and her scholarship on Wagner’s creative development and legacy has been published in academic journals and publications. Her monograph Wagner’s Visions: Poetry, Politics and the Psyche in the Operas through Die Walküre appeared in 2014.