Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Love That Wouldn't Stop Speaking Its Name: Tristan und Isolde at LA Opera, 2/10/08

Tristan und Isolde is like cilantro. No, not because fans of “California Cuisine” like to sprinkle it all over everything, but because some people just seem to be immune to its charms. Most people think that cilantro is delicious, while others can only taste a strange, soapy flavor when they eat it. Many opera-lovers think that Tristan und Isolde is the best opera of the 19th century, and possibly the best EVER. While I do enjoy a bit of cilantro now and then, Tristan und Isolde just left me thinking “Well, the music was nice, but...” Now, I’m willing to admit that part of that is because I have the attention span of a kitten that’s had a shot of espresso and been left in a room full of yarn and shiny keys and part of it is LA Opera’s “Up with Mediocrity!” stance, but Tristan und Isolde definitely wasn’t the “ode to sexual ecstasy” that LA Opera’s website would have us believe. There was nary a boob to be seen! Oh, and the music, while lovely, wasn’t erotic until the very, very end. Four and a half hours of foreplay might be OK for, I don’t know, Sting, but for anyone else, it’s maddening and causes chafing.

My main beef with Wagner is that, in my opinion, he doesn’t live up to his own hype. He was all about creating a complete work, a Gesamtkunstwerk that encompassed music, theater, and visual arts, and contained what he considered quality drama. Well, if a bunch of people standing around and babbling repetitively to each other is Wagner’s idea of “quality drama”, somebody dig up his corpse and set it in front of the SOAP network. According to James “Verbal Diarrhea” Conlon’s program notes, Wagner wrote more poetry than any other composer because he wrote his own libretti. Eh, well, I guess it’s poetry in the sense that it’s not prose, but that’s where the similarity ends. It’s mostly just Wagner saying, “My deep understanding of Schopenhauer, let me show you it.” As usual, Wagner loves the sound of his music being played and his voice coming out of other people so much that the characters repeat the same idea back and forth to each other so much that I wanted to Fry-QD: “Stop! You’re just going around in circles!” It just makes me think of Wagner wanking over his own genius onto his libretto pages until they stick together. Well, that's... love, isn't it? Load of old wank. Also, the line "Day is my bitterest foe" was just laughable in its lameness. Incidentally for your edification, "the gloaming" is my bitterest enemy, mostly because it can't fucking decide if it's night or day and because of its stupid name. Anyway, some of that time-of-day rage might just be the translation, true, but the whole night and day omgit'scalledadichotomy! stuff got to be a little much. Instead of complaining about the day, make the most of the night. Happy love might be boring dramatically, but it probably wouldn't be as tiresome either.

Act II is supposed to be the most erotic piece of music ever written, but it never made me pop my monocle at the sheer sexuality of it. Tristan and Isolde having the world’s most pointless argument about who hates the day more and talking about themselves in third person didn’t help much either. Why are they wasting precious very sensual boot-knocking time with that? Even though Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is pretty sugary and schlocky in comparison to Tristan und Isolde, at least you got the feeling that the characters really wanted to touch each other in places. Of course, that’s simplifying eroticism and love to being just about sex, but when you’re throwing around words like “orgasmic” to describe something, sex has got to enter into it. Also, the demands of Wagner’s music make it necessary for singers with a certain type of voice to be cast, and that type of voice isn’t particularly pretty, sexy, or even youthful (which I’m guessing the protagonists are supposed to be). A singer’s physical appearance can easily be overlooked if they sound the part, but the idea of two ecstatic lovers bellowing at each other isn’t romantic at all. It just makes the audience think that one of them is going to maul the other with their fearsome gonad.

Of course, not all of this is Wagner and his crappy writing’s fault; some of the blame rests on the shoulders of the director and the singers. Conlon mentioned in the program notes that Tristan und Isolde is one of the most static operas in the repertoire, so what did the director do? He made the characters hardly move at all! The only way the opera could’ve been more static would be if the singers had all been encased in carbonite like a bunch of be-veloured Han Solos. There was some minimal hugging here and there, but in the second act, Isolde just sat on a tree stump and stroked Tristan’s hideous wig as if she were checking him for nits. It was easily the least erotic thing ever, and that includes the painfully awkward “Gobble gobble” scene from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which at least had the benefit of some actual touching going on. Hell, it was even less erotic than Bill O’Reilly’s Middle Eastern food-fueled phone sex fantasies. OK, maybe not. Worst of all was the bizarre choice to make Isolde sing the famous Liebestod concert-style, standing still in the cage of a white spotlight. To make things even more baffling, Tristan got up at the end and gave her a hug from behind straight out of an Asian drama.

The production aside from the shitty direction was also kind of lackluster, in my opinion. The scenery and costumes should support the music without competing with it, and this scenery was practically running a 100-meter dash against the music. It was luridly bright, somewhat cartoonish, and full of lame “Celtic” touches like Celtic knots instead of leaves on the trees. That’s about as Celtic as Celtic Woman. Many of the reviews I read were like, “Oh, the scenery is soooo LA because it was designed by David Hockney, and we all know how well he paints naked guys climbing out of pools, which is also soooo LA!” I know Hockney has lived here for years and all, but if he thinks that bright red, green, and purple have anything to do with LA, he’s wrong. The light here bleaches out color; it doesn’t make it look all bright and scary like a sitcom acid trip. The costumes were similarly hideous and made it seem that there had been a fire sale at the Velour Warehouse. Velvet muumuus, caftan, and sacks abounded. If one were using Zapp Brannigan logic, that would enhance the erotic feel of the opera, but though there was some velour petting, no one just let themselves go. The men carried “swords” that looked like the plastic “Master of the Universe” ones they sold in the 80s. Maybe if Tristan had invoked the power of Greyskull, he could’ve beaten Melot instead of awkwardly grabbing Melot’s sword and guiding it into his stomach. The other props were equally lame, especially Isolde’s chest full of magical butt-plugs and the love potion that looked like a bottle of Heineken. Nothing says “eternal love” like skunky Dutch beer, though, right?

In addition to being an over-priced pale lager, the love potion also apparently makes men’s balls swell, which is the only explanation I can find for John Treleaven standing with his legs wide-apart all the time, as if Tristan was expecting Isolde to measure his in-seam with her tongue. That was the least of Treleaven’s missteps (or misstands) as Tristan, though. To be fair, I don’t think Laurence Olivier could act his way out from under the hideous wig they clapped on Treleaven. It was like a Tyra Banks wet dream in its ghetto-y plasticness; she would’ve killed to slap that monstrosity onto the scalp of one of her wannabe models. In this case, Tyra would’ve told Tristan that he was reading more Tiny Tim than legendary lover. But bad hairpieces are no excuse for bad singing, and Treleaven’s singing was, well, bad. At some points, he sounded like Plàcido Domingo -- Plàcido Domingo at 67, nursing a snot-fountaining head cold. He could almost always be heard, at least, in spite of the enormous orchestra and the bad acoustics, but we really didn’t want him to be. Treleaven’s acting was so bad that I felt like giggling with glee when he fell down (on purpose!) and rolled the length of the stage, ending up face-down with his legginged ass showing, instead of thinking, “Oh noes, Tristan is going to die and he’s never even banged Isolde as far as I know!” Yes, bad acting turns me into a sadist. You really don’t want to know what I get up to when I watch a Scarlett Johansson movie.

Unfortunately for the audience, Act III is pretty much all Tristan, all the time, and it was so painful that I felt like I’d been stabbed by Melot too, only in the brain, eyes, and ears. It was mostly just Tristan blabbering about how death awaits us all with nasty big pointy teeth, etc., and how seagulls had plucked out his eyes and he’s a fly trapped in a bottle of SHADOWS! Every once in a while, he’d heap abuse on his faithful servant Kurwenal for his sudden yet inevitable betrayal, only to turn around and say how true Kurwenal is. I guess that was the gangrenous wound talking, and Kurwenal did deserve some abuse for propping the wounded Tristan up against a boulder on a grassy knoll instead of keeping him inside like a normal person. To make things even more regrettable, Treleaven jerked and seized as if he were being moved by a series of servos, and to be honest, the mechanical whirring sound of servos would be preferable to Treleaven’s squalling. I was beginning to think that he was going to sing for the time it would actually take for Isolde to sail from Cornwall to Brittany.

Linda Watson's Isolde was better vocally than her Tristan, but some of her acting choices were just as head-scratching. When Tristan's betrayal of Marke was revealed, instead of looking panicked, Watson's Isolde just calmly walked toward the castle at the side of the stage with a bland, blank look on her face. Neither Watson nor Treleaven were convincing lovers, not least because they hardly looked at each other during their love scenes. Then again, maybe Watson was afraid she'd crack up if she looked at Treleaven's wig. Her voice seemed equal enough to the role, but the sound of it wasn't particularly unique, and she didn't do much acting with it. Every once in a while, she'd sing a softer, lower passage, and almost sound like someone desperately, passionately in love, but those moments were few.

Isolde’s interactions with her servant Brangäne were more shrill than touching, which is odd, considering that those passages are often cited as great moments of female-bonding in opera. Instead of being like watching rom-coms in their pajamas and eating ice cream or like two ovaries swimming in a pink sea of crotch-sweat collected at Lilith Fair (dated reference ahoy!), Watson’s Isolde and Lioba Braun’s Brangäne’s duets were more like a badger in a gaudy blonde wig growling at a mouse with a funny hat.

In spite of that, Braun’s Brangäne was one of the more pleasant singers to listen to, maybe because she couldn’t really be heard. Her voice seemed softer than it was in last season’s Tannhäuser, and she was definitely the best, most sensitive actress on the stage. Then again, a bust of Keanu Reeves carved from Velveeta would be a most sensitive actor than John Treleaven.

Eric Halfvarson was sonorous and stern as King Marke, though in his aria about the pain of being betrayed by his nephew and his wife, he genuinely showed the audience that he’d been hurt deep down, where he’s soft like a woman, or soft like his giant velour robe. King Marke as a character seemed somewhat flimsy; I couldn’t help but compare him to King Philip from Verdi’s Don Carlos, who is truly multi-faceted (even if several of those facets are complete bastards) and so well-realized that you really feel for him when he sings “Elle ne m’aime pas”. That’s the librettist’s fault, though, not Wagner’s… oh wait.

Juha Uusitalo was fine as the loyal Kurwenal, though he didn’t really have much to do other than stand around in regrettable turquoise suede boots.

It must take one egoist to do justice to another, because the ever-loquacious James Conlon led the orchestra nicely (and loudly) through Wagner’s gorgeous music. Conlon doesn’t seem to have a very good grasp of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s acoustics (or lack thereof), because the orchestra often (mercifully) drowned out the singers. On the other hand, Conlon probably just doesn’t care. What I’d really like to know is why so many people in the audience feel the need to lean forward and pop out of their seats like so many Whack-a-Moles every time the orchestra starts to play. The orchestra always pretty much looks the same; it’s not they’re going to come back from the intermission dressed like Gwar or something.

Just as someone with stupid tastebuds will never appreciate the fresh zestiness of cilantro biting through the fatty richness of an avocado in guacamole, so will I never understand the supposed wonder that is Tristan und Isolde. Even during the Liebestod, which is the one genuinely erotic piece of music in the whole thing, I just kept thinking how much more enjoyable it would’ve been as a tone poem, without the singing, without the stupid words. Yeah, it would tear Zombie Wagner away from re-runs of Passions to demand what we’d done with all his wonderful words, but in the end, I would leave thinking him much more of a genius than I did on Sunday.

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At February 15, 2008 at 6:05 AM , Blogger Catherine said...

're going to give me a crash course in opera and take me to see somehting so that I can understand more than 10% of the snark.

And even with that minimal understanding - you make me laugh like a sad sad bastard.

(cathellisen from lj, in case there's any confusion)

At February 15, 2008 at 6:07 AM , Blogger Catherine said...

Egh, why for did Blogger eat my comment?

The first part of that should read:

One day I'm coming to LA and you're going....yadda yadda.

At February 15, 2008 at 12:58 PM , Blogger The Opera Tattler said...

I adore you. That Hockney production is just a bit of a yawn, isn't it? I couldn't make myself look at it more than twice.

At February 16, 2008 at 2:05 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

While long, the critical analysis lacked much substance: Hockney production uninteresting, Treleaven poorly cast and dressed, Watson not much better, vocal supers okay, Conlon as usual, Wagner as usual. So dear OQ, you'd have said more in fewer, and oh yes, dear Tyra wanna be, less of your wank too.

At February 20, 2008 at 5:30 PM , Blogger The Opera Tattler said...

It would all be much less funny if more concise.

At February 23, 2008 at 7:09 AM , Anonymous Gert said...

My commiserations to you on having to listen to Treleaven; however hard the orchestra tries, they just can't drown him out. As a BTW, are you sure it was a dodgy wig and not his natural hairstyle.

I think I like T&I more than you, but thank you for your vivid evocative description:-)

At November 8, 2008 at 4:32 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is my favorite review of all time. I just saw the Met's Berlioz Faust and came to relive your description of the Relyea-bot (and I'm actually generally a fan of him/it), but had forgotten how much I love this post, too. And I'm totally with you on just not really getting the genius of (most of) Tristan. The first and last half hours are terrific, but right now at least, I just don't really need everything in between.

At November 11, 2008 at 2:36 PM , Blogger Charlise said...

I miss your reviews, and so I've tagged you in this ridiculous meme:

At November 11, 2008 at 8:11 PM , Blogger Sternflammenden said...

Thanks, anonymous! I'm glad you enjoyed the reviews. I think I *might* enjoy Tristan & Isolde in a semi-staged format, or something like the Tristan Project. Maybe. It has a lot of beautiful music, but there's just so much of it.

At November 11, 2008 at 8:12 PM , Blogger Sternflammenden said...

Thanks, Charlise! I've been totally slacking off on the review-writing lately. Maybe I'll get around to posting the one I wrote for The Fly.

At December 10, 2017 at 10:55 AM , Blogger Nira Elshair said...

شركة كشف تسربات بالقطيف


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