Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde has been a health hazard practically from the moment the composer conceived the opera in 1854. The first tenor to sing Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, expired from the strain weeks after creating the role. He was only 29. The conductor of the first Tristan I ever saw, Joseph Keilberth, had his fondest wish come true in 1968 when he collapsed and died on the podium during a performance in Munich—exactly as his predecessor Felix Mottl had, 57 years earlier. Wagner himself felt that a faithful account of this intoxicating music would be more than most audiences could bear.
As far as I know, there were no fatalities during The Tristan Project, which is how the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, styled the recent concert performances of the complete opera in Avery Fisher Hall, a multimedia extravaganza overseen by director Peter Sellars and featuring an elaborate video devised by visual artist Bill Viola. Who knows what Wagner might have thought about all that, but the musical elements of the occasion, while not exactly incandescent, were mostly worthy of the piece, and the audience was clearly in the composer’s grip. Exactly what makes Tristan und Isolde sound so eternally contemporary and palpably erotic has divided theorists for a century and a half, but no one can miss the expressive power of the musical declamation or the seductive pull of a lush chromatic idiom that continually teases the ear with a twisting sensuality that builds to one orgasmic climax after another.
The catalyst for Wagner to create Tristan, most agree, was his encounter with the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer, who celebrated the same sort of longing for oblivion and sexual suffering that afflict the opera’s ill-starred couple. Unlike Wagner, though, the philosopher emphasized the necessity for self-denial and ego erasure in relationships between men and women—the big love of Schopenhauer’s life, apparently, was his pet poodle. This would hardly do for a composer as sexualized and egomaniacal as Wagner, and he poured all his romantic obsessions into Tristan und Isolde. Anyone attracted to the opera will have felt similar emotions at one time or another, perhaps on a different level of intensity or only in fantasies, and he or she immediately senses the composer’s intent.
I doubt that many Tristan connoisseurs will buy into Viola’s cinematic interpretation of the opera’s interior world—seeing his accompanying film once was enough for me. I’m not suggesting that he should’ve gone in the direction of soft porn. But surely something more erotic was needed than a rather mopey middle-aged couple with bad muscle tone stripping naked and undergoing a lot of tiresome fire-and-water purification rituals before attaining that ultimate Wagnerian ecstasy of höchste Lust. The usual well-upholstered operatic lovers onstage present a sufficient visual challenge without adding to the problem. Viola’s imagery and symbols are not difficult to interpret, but when experiencing Tristan und Isolde in the flesh, the last thing one wants to do is sit and solve intellectual puzzles, especially easy ones that have so little intrinsic beauty of their own.
The singers mostly stood and delivered a concert reading of the opera. What staging there was amounted to a few characters placed in the side balconies of Fisher Hall. Christine Brewer proved once again to be the best Isolde around, at least from a purely vocal perspective. Despite a few minor weak moments (she was apparently still recovering from stomach flu), her soprano has all the strength, clarity, tonal gleam, and declamatory power to realize the full implications of the music. Stepping in to sing Tristan in place of an indisposed Alan Woodrow (the curse on this role still seems operative), Christian Franz gave a sturdy account of the notes until he tired toward the end, exploring the complexities of his half-hour delirium in Act III with more care than expressive abandon. Anne Sofie von Otter (Brangäne), Jukka Rasilainen (Kurwenal), and John Relyea (King Marke) all made decent contributions, and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted a warmly inflected, cogently shaped, although in the end rather generic reading of the score. In short, an honorable performance of this still troubling masterpiece, but hardly a Tristan to die for.