Monday, February 11, 2008

The Imperfect Wagnerite

I’ve been interested in Wagner ever since I wrote a term paper on the Ring cycle for Mrs. Christman’s college prep music classes at Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg (Pa.) back in the late 1950s. I’ve remained interested (though not obsessed), but when the LA Opera announced a production of Tristan und Isolde for their 2007-2008 season I got my ticket early.

I’m not particularly star/diva oriented either. For me the main focus of interest is the music and (being one myself) the composer. I didn’t even know who the stars were in the production I saw on Sunday, February 10 (2008). For the record they were Linda Watson as Isolde and John Treleaven as Tristan. They were both super, and as the first real opera queen I ever knew used to say: “such screaming and carrying on.” (He meant it as high praise indeed, as do I).

I did, however, know that David Hockney designed this Tristan, a well-publicized fact that was for me, however, a mixed but intriguing incentive. Hockney’s version, a revival of the 1987 original for the LA Opera, turned out to be quite distinctive, a stylized 3-dimensional fusion of the British artist’s now patented LA (quasi-Matisse) style and a rethinking of a classic retro Bayreuth look. At any rate, it worked and was aptly complemented by Duane Schuler’s shifting and atmospheric lighting.

For me personally the main attraction is Wagner’s revolutionary score and the lush sound of the company’s symphony orchestra under James Conlon (who also provided a well-attended pre-show chat before the curtain). Kuddos to everyone involved there, but especially the bass clarinet, English horn, and off-stage French horn players.

I admit I did not get the full night’s sleep I had hoped for before taking on the 1.00 to 6.00 Wagner shift, and so during the first act I did phase in and out just a wee tad. The program notes ask “Does Tristan make demands on the audience?” The answer is, of course, yes, one of them being simply to remain conscious for the duration, a challenge I almost met this time. (I remember seeing the von Karajan Valkryie at the Lincoln Center Met some years ago, a production so obscured in super low-key storm cloud lighting effects that it was all but impossible to avoid sinking into intermittent comatose states as deep as Brunnhilde’s third act slumber at some points over the duration).

However, I find supertitles – a line-by-line translation of the libretto projected over the proscenium arch - the best thing to have happened to opera since Barber’s Vanessa and here they were a great boon to truly appreciating the drama (such as it is) and poetry of Wagner’s own libretto. And in addition they are certainly an aid in keeping focus throughout.

I know Tristan most intimately by the famous orchestral Prelude that encapsulates some of the major motive of the score, and I also had my ancient, well-worn copy of Albert Lavignac’s “The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner” (Dodd Mead and Company, New York, 1898) for a quick refresher course between acts. I was engrossed throughout but at a certain point in the second act love duet a certain episode strangely familiar from knowing the classic films scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold kicked in and I was unselfconsciously swept away. Unfortunately around the end of the this segment of the (on-going) duet dawn breaks and King Mark walks in and proceeds to bore both the lovers and the audience for the next half hour.

At any rate, around 5.45 I staggered down the grand mirrored staircase of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, slightly stupefied but also with a rekindled interest in the Great and Malevolent One.

An interest apparently shared by the LA Opera who are scheduled unveil their long touted new production of the Ring cycle with Das Rheingold and Die Walkure in February and April of 2009. This new version (designed by Achim Freyer) may not have the Light and Magic effects that were once mentioned as a possibility for an LA Ring, but even without George and Star Wars efx I’ll probably be in line for tickets as soon as they’re available. Especially for the cinematic Rheingold, as way back in Mrs. Christman’s class, those Rhinemaidens, dwarves, and giants got me hooked on Wagner in the first place!

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