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OPERA REVIEW : A Vivid but Flawed 'Tristan' : Music Center Approaches Vast, Complex Challenge With Lofty Intentions

December 08, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Any serious Wagnerian can find grumble material in the new production of "Tristan und Isolde" introduced by the Music Center Opera Sunday afternoon.

David Hockney's faintly whimsical, steadfastly picturesque sets frequently contradict the monumental romanticism of the score.

Zubin Mehta's tense and feverish conducting serves Wagner's urgency better than his sensuality.

The cast, led by William Johns and Jeannine Altmeyer, demonstrates once again the scarcity of heroic singers with heroic personalities in these impoverished times.

The much ballyhooed technical wonders of computerized lighting create new problems while they solve old ones.

Nevertheless, the production is a major achievement, worthy of a major international company.

It takes mighty risks and approaches an extraordinarily complex challenge with lofty intentions. It respects Wagner's sprawling, swollen, mystical, poignant rhetoric. And, in the process, it reinforces the potential validity of old-fashioned opera as modern musical theater.

In the dark ages, we had voices. Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad didn't bother to do much acting, didn't look like storybook lovers, didn't have the advantage of elaborate scenic devices. But they, and their illustrious colleagues, could produce endless volleys of rapturous, stentorian tones as they conveyed generalized emotions.

The productions in which they appeared were the sort that made cartoonists ecstatic. No one knew better at the time.

Times have changed. After World War II, Wieland Wagner started a dramatic revolution in Bayreuth, stripping away the trivia and conveying mythic fundamentals through light and symbol. Emphasis was shifted from sound to sight. The world of Richard Wagner could never to be the same again.

Jonathan Miller, who staged the Los Angeles "Tristan" in conjunction with Hockney, savors the value of simplicity. He does not care to follow Wieland's example in matters of stark abstraction, but he does reduce the tragedy to fundamental stances.

Grandiose gestures are outlawed, along with meaningless opera-singer mannerisms. The protagonists are forced to act, primarily, with their faces and with their voices.

The concept makes sense. It is hard to be moved by the most erotic of love duets when it is executed by a pair of floundering whales. Wagner always teeters on the brink of expressive excess. The music does not require much visual punctuation.

In this context, moreover, Miller had to compete with wildly assertive decors . Hockney's drastically (perhaps dangerously) raked sets make relentless demands upon the eyes.

A painterly ship with fussy, jack-o'-lantern side-boards and cut-out paper sails fills the stage in Act I. A quaint Medieval castle flanked by symmetrical rows of curlicue-top trees defines the Cornwall of King Marke. Most effective, a poetically barren plateau upon a jagged cliff presages the ultimate transfiguration in Kareol.

The naive images emerge bold and beautiful, even when they tend to mock the solemn source. Similarly, Hockney's lavish, electric-bright costumes sometime threaten to wear the singers. Even when one worries about narrative focus, however, not to mention clashes of style and mood, one admires the artist's wit, his flair and his unfailing invention.

"Tristan" is an opera rife withlife-and-death symbolism involving the burning agony of day and the soothing ecstasy of night. The lighting design, created in conjunction with Wally Russell, evoked a marvelous, subtly changing network of shadows and stresses. Some of the effects fell victim to mechanical mishap, however, and the unmasked light fixtures were all too visible above the sky in the last act. Even more vexing, a low-pitch rumble constantly accompanied the illumination.

Given this visual milieu, Miller's actors often had to function as part of the scenery. The stylized histrionic scheme would no doubt have been more effective if more charismatic figures had demanded our attention.

William Johns, the stolid Tristan, is rather small in physical and vocal stature. His dramatic resources would seem to be limited. Nevertheless, given the current level of Heldentenor competition, he remains a more-than-reasonable choice for this super-arduous role.

He sounded a bit tentative and unsteady at his entrance. In the love music, he sometimes resorted to crooning--which still is emphatically preferable to bellowing. Obviously, he was saving himself for the high and strenuous delirium of Act III, which he mustered with ringing fervor and astonishing stamina.

Jeannine Altmeyer, the prettiest of statuesque blondes, commands a big, healthy spinto soprano that really blossoms at the top. Her high Cs were glorious. The warmth and generosity of her tone were reassuring. She is extraordinarily talented.

She probably is the definitive Sieglinde of the day. Isolde, however, is another matter.

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