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OPERA REVIEW : Second Look at Music Center 'Tristan'

December 21, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

The following news flash appeared in Natural History magazine, April 1987:

In 1985, the Soviet icebreaker Moskva broke through some 15 miles of ice off northeastern Siberia to reach 3,000 trapped beluga whales. The shy whales would not follow their rescuers to safety, and the crew tried to lead them with music. Pop and martial music failed, but Wagner struck a responsive chord ( sic ), and the whales followed the ship to the strains of "Tristan und Isolde."

So there. Never underestimate the allure of Wagner's overripe, ultra-decadent, super-romantic, overtly erotic, overwhelmingly poignant music drama.

On Dec. 6, Peter Hemmings and the enterprising Music Center Opera gave Los Angeles its first "Tristan" in 34 years. This wasn't just an ordinary production. It was a lavish, much hyped, ultra-glamorous affair designed by David Hockney, staged by Jonathan Miller, conducted by Zubin Mehta and sung by a valiant if not heroic cast led by William Johns and Jeannine Altmeyer.

The premiere looked and sounded a bit tentative, but there was no questioning the lofty standards and intentions at work here. "Tristan" instantly became a hot ticket. All six performances--spread over a dangerously strenuous span of two weeks--sold out.

Friday night, at the penultimate performance of the run, some elements had improved, while others had declined.

Hockney's storybook designs are heralded by a naive title-page scrim that serves to remind the audience what the opera is called and who wrote it. The thing looked even sillier the second time around.

The artist's witty images--a cartoon ship with stationary, cut-out paper sails in Act I; a toy castle flanked by charming, stylized trees in Act II; and, least improbable, a bleak rampart framed by a flat pop-up tree in Act III--remain quaint and eminently picturesque. They also remain far too fussy and superficial for Wagner's monumental, timeless, essentially placeless score.

At least the noisy but flexible, newfangled lighting system illuminated the sets on this occasion without nervous glitches.

Miller's stark, semi-stylized action scheme--actually an in action scheme--wasn't enforced with consistent rigor this time. Some of the singers had begun to revert to old-fashioned, time-dishonored, all-purpose operatic gestures. The director, one assumes, had returned to London.

Although passions were subdued on the drastically raked stage, the drama raged marvelously in the pit. Mehta conducted with galvanizing breadth, vigor and expressive intensity, even when he blanketed the fragile voices. The obviously inspired Los Angeles Philharmonic gave him--and Wagner--his due.

The arduous performance schedule seemed to have taken its toll on two of the principals.

The prodigiously gifted Altmeyer, not prudently cast in the first place, made Isolde hectic when one most wanted serenity, had difficulty sustaining long legato phrases (especially low ones), and sang increasingly flat as the marathon progressed.

Martti Talvela, a magnificent King Marke on opening night, encountered severe vocal distress in the upper regions of the basso role. A convenient lozenge, popped into the regal throat in mid-monologue, proved of no avail.

Johns' bel-canto Tristan, on the other hand, had made considerable gains in force and assurance.

One must not expect him to sound like Melchior. No one does today. One should not expect much histrionic impact from him either. But Johns did pace himself even more cannily than before. He sang the love music softly, with enlightened lyricism. He made the aching response to Marke ("O Konig, das kann ich dir nicht sagen") profoundly touching, and rose to the daunting challenge of the delirium with ringing ardor.

Florence Quivar repeated her sympathetic, slightly rough-toned Brangane, inadvertently jolting the ears by delivering the second part of her "Ruf" via microphone. Roger Roloff was, again, a tower of strength as the faithful Kurwenal.

The audience registered predictable, generally warranted ecstasy at the end, nearly five hours after that silly fore-curtain first rose.

The whales would, no doubt, have been happy too.

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