Love triumphant

Times Staff Writer

"Music is the shortest distance between two points. And it is the only way we touch infinity."

That was Peter Sellars during a preconcert talk Sunday afternoon before the third installment of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's three-day "Tristan Project."

Such sentiments are classic Sellars-isms. But they were proved true -- so transcendentally true that they could be permanently emblazoned over the stage of Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The "Tristan Project" is a collaborative effort between stage director Sellars, Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and video artist Bill Viola. And of course Wagner. It began with individual, semi-staged, video-accompanied, incomparable performances of the three acts of "Tristan und Isolde" on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Disney Hall.

It will go on for a long time. In April at the Paris Opera, there will be a full staging by Sellars, with Salonen conducting and the Viola videos. The project will return to Los Angeles in three or four years and also travel to New York's Lincoln Center.

Sellars promises, with the "Tristan Project," a 10-year exploration of the deepest recesses of human consciousness. For this long opera about the power of love to release us from earthly constraints while keeping us in a state of ceaseless yearning, Wagner invented unresolving music that changed the way the world thought about harmony -- and lust. There is a lot to explore, and it takes time.

So the journey that began over the weekend had all the promise of a glorified workshop at premium prices. The singers were not the stars (Ben Heppner and Waltraud Meier) who will appear in Paris. There was little attempt at staging. Viola's videos had to compete with the Disney Hall architecture, which does not make screens easily visible to all, and with bleeding illumination from orchestra stands and spotlighted singers. It was Salonen's first time with the score, Viola's entrance into the world of opera.

But "Tristan" -- the once famously unsingable opera about a love so potent it can be realized only by the removal of all obstacles, those of the physical world, those of life itself -- stretches to the breaking point everyone who confronts it. Any performance that doesn't try too much fails before it starts.

The Philharmonic tried too much. Everything that should have worked, worked. Everything that shouldn't have worked, worked. If the "Tristan Project" is not the greatest moment in the orchestra's history, I can't imagine what was.

The ambitions went beyond "Tristan" per se to a broader examination of what the opera represents both psychically and musically. Since for Wagner the most profound love required facing danger, each act at Disney was preceded by a work that would not have been musically possible without the example of "Tristan" and that, like "Tristan," is a study of forbidden love.

Before Act 1 came Alban Berg's "Lyric Suite," with its extra-musical codes of extramarital longing. Act 2 was preceded by an ethereally played suite from Debussy's "Pelleas and Melisande," a couple whose fate isn't all that different from Tristan and Isolde's. Sunday, Act 3 was introduced by "reflections" from Kaija Saariaho's "L'Amour de Loin" (Love from afar) -- probably the most celebrated opera written in the last five years and an exquisite evocation of love attempting to cross uncrossable distances and barriers.

But that was all prelude. And it wasn't long into the Philharmonic's performance of the "Tristan" prelude Friday night before it was clear that something extraordinary was happening. In fact, 18 bars in, when the motif of the gaze, the music of infinite longing and searching, swept through the hall with a luminosity and clarity that felt like sound turned to light, one knew.

You may need no other reason to attend "Tristan" than the sheer beauty of sound the Philharmonic makes in the Disney Hall. Salonen reseats the orchestra, with the violins on the right and cellos and basses next to the first violins, to translucent effect. If you love details in Wagner, and he was a master of them, you will be in heaven. You have to listen fast, however, because it's also a fast "Tristan," full of exciting urgency.

And it's a real collaboration, one in which the whole is greater than its already great parts. Key among the contributors is, of course, Viola. He provides a whole new element to the world of opera. On a large screen covering the Disney organ and a smaller one in the rear of the hall -- each horizontal for the first two acts and vertical for the third -- he presents a companion spiritual voyage.

Viola doesn't really accompany the opera so much as provide additional context through slow-moving images of purification, of streaming light, of the release of the soul from the body. For the love duet, when the lovers despise day so as to enter into their own realm of night, he shows us a tree becoming engulfed in light. One of Wagner's greatest accomplishments is to allow everything its opposite. Music doesn't resolve as expected. Now we have, for the first time, a visual equivalent.

No one who sees a woman fall into a still pool, in front of a massive wall of flame, as Tristan dies, will likely forget it, especially as we slowly realize that what we are looking at is a reflection on the water, creating the effect of the skin of reality peeling away.

Oh yes, the singers. I save them for last, but reviews are sequential, and reality is unfair. So let it be said that Christine Brewer, who is known mainly for concert singing, proved an Isolde of a searing power and affecting expression not commonly encountered these days. Next to her, Clifton Forbis' one-dimensional, wobbly-voiced "Tristan" disappointed for two acts. Then, for his nearly hourlong delirium in Act 3, he impressively found Tristan in his dying, underwent that special heroic Wagnerian rite of rising above one's limitations.

The rest of the cast -- Jill Grove (Brangane), Alan Held (Kurwenal), Stephen Milling (King Mark), Thomas Studebaker (Melot) -- was more than satisfying. Heidi Grant Murphy and Kyle Ketelsen, who were the soloists in the Saariaho, further contributed to a weekend of involving singing. And, at least for those sitting in front of the orchestra, having singers sometimes placed on the side terraces, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale in the balcony for Act 1, made Disney feel like a room without traditional boundaries.

For all the burning fire, this "Tristan" missed one thing: an acknowledgment that the opera is among the most intensely erotic expressions in all art. In Wagner, love operates unconditionally in sexual ecstasy.

Not here. Or at least, not yet. Some things really do take time.

*

'Tristan Project'

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall,

111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday;

2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $15 to $125

Contact: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com

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