‘Tristan,’ Hockney’s beautiful beast

Times Staff Writer

What with traffic, there was, I hoped, just enough time to experience a staggering, midwinter sunset over the ocean in Santa Monica -- to drink in the neon wine-reds and deepest blues imaginable -- and arrive at the Music Center in time for the 7 o’clock curtain Saturday of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” The risk seemed worth it. “Tristan” revels in risk, and this was David Hockney’s “Tristan” for Los Angeles Opera. Its light is L.A. light.

In a funny way, I think it fair to say that although Wagner never witnessed our light, he imagined something like it. In his revolutionary, ecstatic opera, the light of day is the enemy of love. The forbidden union of Tristan and Isolde, fed by a magic potion, is an escape from this world into another more exotic, erotic one in which all energy comes from ravishment.

Wagner’s night is not conventional darkness. The music glows as music never before glowed. Wagner breaks rules of harmony and voice, just as the lovers break rules of society, to reach a higher plane. The greatness of Hockney’s designs, and particularly his use of light, is in the way the British painter so closely associated with L.A. shows this new paradise to be something not unlike what I saw from the Santa Monica Palisades.


Hockney’s “Tristan” is turning out to be a once-in-a-decade event. First offered by L.A. Opera in 1987, it returned in 1997. This is its third incarnation, and the production’s beauties remain undiminished. So, unfortunately, do its problems.

Once deemed controversial -- vivid color, some viewers said, obscured Wagner’s night vision -- the conception now looks like a classic. But no one has known how to stage the bloody thing, and it has never had an ideal cast.

Care has been taken with the new revival, which the company’s music director, James Conlon, conducts. Sets have been nicely spiffed up. Lighting, carefully handled by Duane Schuler, has been restudied, and the once-noisy Vari-Lite machinery is no longer obtrusive. Cuts in the score have been opened up. The L.A. Opera orchestra has improved enormously in 10 years, and Conlon led an urgent performance.

The staging is now entrusted to Thor Steingraber. The lovers are two experienced Wagnerians: John Treleaven (who sounds decent enough on the newest “Tristan” recording) and Linda Watson (who is scheduled to sing Brunnhilde in the company’s upcoming “Ring” cycle). But the fit between singers, director and production left much to be desired.

Steingraber’s task was not an easy one. He had to respect his beauteous surroundings -- no littering -- yet supply drama to an essentially static opera that keeps the audience in the theater until nearly midnight. His solution was to throw in a whole lot of cliched Wagnerian gestures (unless the singers came up with them themselves). The hand-wringing and pacing about made them seem, in this setting, tourists from far away and long ago.

Original ideas didn’t work well either. At the end, as Isolde concludes her famous “Liebestod,” Tristan rises from the dead, getting up from the ground like a couch potato having just awakened after falling asleep in front of the television.


Chemistry and atmosphere are what make “Tristan” work. Watson, who needed time in each act to warm up, sang convincingly but brought little passion to her stage appearance. Treleaven’s voice is thinner and more nasal, and he too needed far stronger dramatic direction. Neither lover went through the amazing transformation that is at the heart of the opera. Sex was in short supply.

Atmosphere was also in shorter supply than one might have hoped for. Creative solutions are often called for in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Hockney’s designs produce a great work of art and need to be presented as such. Lots of light leaked from the pit, which destroyed some of the sets’ magic.

The prompter’s box, though dimly seen, was an eyesore. Without it, I wondered, might it be possible to move the set closer to the audience? Singers were far away, the orchestra was too deep. From my orchestra section seat, I experienced the voices and the orchestra as coming from separate rooms, and I felt as if I was in neither one. The offstage chorus is all but off the radar. Any Wagnerian who has experienced the acoustically animated experience of the Los Angeles Philharmonic “Tristan Project” in Walt Disney Concert Hall must significantly lower expectations upon entering the Pavilion.

Still, an effective richness in the orchestral playing came through impressively. Brangane (Lioba Braun), Kurwenal (Juha Uusitalo) and King Mark (Kristinn Sigmundsson) were strong characters with sonorous voices. And Conlon, while not conducting a particularly fast performance by the clock, never lost momentum. Whatever its frustrations, the evening did not feel too long.

Enchantment and mystery were not entirely drained from the Hockney “Tristan” on Saturday, but the production nonetheless needs all the help it can get. I suggest a sunset prelude as a mood enhancer, Westside traffic willing.




‘Tristan and Isolde’

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday; 1 p.m. Sunday; 7 p.m. Jan. 31; 1 p.m. Feb. 3; 7 p.m. Feb. 6; 1 p.m. Feb. 10

Price: $20 to $238

Contact: (213) 972-8001or