For many, the operas of Richard Wagner can be a hard slog: The philosophical conundrums of the librettos, the grating consonants of the German language, and the sheer sitzfleisch needed to get through a five-hour show can make a night with Netflix seem suddenly appealing. But all of those problems melted away last week during the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s two performances of The Tristan Project at Avery Fisher Hall, the uncontested classical tickets of the year.
Even without the stunning Bill Viola visuals, which ran concurrently with the music conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, this production of Tristan und Isolde was something to reckon with. As Isolde, Christine Brewer’s big, malty soprano was helpfully framed by its clarity of attack; Christian Franz’s stamina and enviable technique carried his hefty tenor through three punishing acts. The shining mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter was a light-voiced but affecting Brangäne, and the rock-solid bass-baritone John Relyea, a great Met stalwart, offered an impressive King Marke, even if the sinuous tones of René Pape, the international owner of the role, weren’t quite banished from my brain.
In a review of the first performance, a Times critic noted the New York Philharmonic’s comparable lack of imagination in the realm of concert opera, but this was the kind of sleek Left Coast product that could never have been hatched in Gotham. Coming from a city in which it’s worse to be fat than to be poor, the L.A. Phil plays with a firm and concentrated sound that has been slimmed to near perfection by its celebrated conductor. There was a price, of course: Wagner’s orchestration, full of Rembrandt blacks, was painted in mellow tones of straw and gray, and Mr. Salonen’s unflinching Nordic reticence meant that Act II’s love scene lacked sensuality, and its murderous ending took place without the crushing regret you’d hear in the interpretations of a Furtwängler or a Levine. But the close tolerances of the musicianship made for a convincing consolation: These people know the score.
Then there are Mr. Viola’s videos, which were projected on a huge screen above the orchestra: slowly morphing images of ocean and fire, and of two lovers who travel a path from anguish to bliss and back again, their broken bodies lifted, at the end, from blue water to blue heaven. If their genius occasionally distracted me from the music, I always returned to it refreshed and eager for a new surprise.
BECAUSE THE METROPOLITAN OPERA'S FIRST TWO performances of its new production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice took place at exactly the same time as the two Tristans, music-industry honchos had to split their schedules accordingly. This Orfeo made for some vibrant Old Met–New Met synergy: An 18th-century sleeper not heard at the house in 35 years was directed by the choreographer Mark Morris, whose dances shine with an irrepressibly American sense of childlike joy.
Gluck’s masterful treatment of Orfeo’s rescue trip to Hades—95 minutes of fluid, unbroken musical drama—is a desperately needed counterweight in an operatic culture currently dominated by the deftly made but often frivolous operas of Handel. Its lyrical style is severe yet graceful, and its subjects are life, death and the beauty of the world. If Hemingway ever wrote an opera, it would sound like this.
The work’s basic strength is such that Isaac Mizrahi’s campy and much-discussed costumes for the chorus—which, singing magnificently, stood on an imposing set of steel risers designed by Allen Moyer—were a pleasure rather than an affront. Each singer was dressed as a historical figure, a panoply that included, among many others, Churchill, Cleopatra, George Washington, Henry VIII, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Rosa Parks, Jimi Hendrix, Shakespeare, Stalin (where’s the outrage, New York Sun?) and Truman Capote (we know he’s in Hell). What might have been silly was instead oddly moving, a reminder that, even if Euridice (in the librettist’s happy ending) is magically returned to life, history ultimately swallows everyone.