“The Tristan Project”, Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Annie Loui in California
20th December 2022


The iconoclastic director Peter Sellars, and the pioneer video artist Bill Viola met in Wagner’s soaring opera Tristan and Isolde conducted by Gustavo Dudamel in the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.  And what a meeting it was!


Michael Weinus as Tristan and Miina-Liisa Värelä as Isolde.
Photo credit: Mathew Imaging/LA Phil.


Although fraught with the limitations of the staging and a disconnect between projection screen, supertitles, and performers, the resolution of Act 1 and 3 solved all of these issues.  At the climax, the music, staging and video combined in an otherworldly sublimation that brought the audience to its feet at the end of the evening.

The plot of Act 1 is simple:  Tristan, Isolde, and their confidents/companions, Brangane and Kurwenal are on a boat bound for Cornwall.  In Cornwall, Isolde will be handed over by Tristan for a marriage to king Marke. There is a history of unspoken expectations, resentment, scars, and shame between Tristan and Isolde that is unresolved and escalating while the boat approaches its destination.

As Peter Sellars notes in the programme; “Two damaged angry desperate and hurt human beings are on a long trip.  Neither expects to survive the journey.”  Isolde calls for an ultimate confrontation and produces two potions; one a deadly poison, the other, the elixir of pure love – and goading Tristan into a sort of shared suicide pact they drink the poisoned chalice – only to discover that the potions have been switched by Brangane, and the overwhelming experience evoked is not death, but love.

The enormity of the music and the sheer quality of the musical performances were emphasized in the overture where Dudamel evoked outstanding subtlety from the orchestra.  The use of the stage was minimal and the two singers playing Isolde and her confidante were literally a part of the orchestra, perched on a block at the edge of the stage evoking the prow of a ship.

Where should one focus one’s attention?  At the projection screen backing the orchestra? At the singers?  At the supertitles?  Peter Sellars resolved the problem by exacerbating it, and using the expanse of the Concert Hall itself to create a stage structure for the performers.  Tristan and Kurwenal sang from balconies in the audience and the excellent chorus sang unseen from behind the spectators.


Photo credit: Mathew Imaging/LA Phil.


Bill Viola’s visual meditations continued on in front of us simultaneously. If the music was the glue that gave us continuity in the disconnect of visuals, Bill Viola’s intimate and spirit-full video was always deepening the context.  Viola’s signature motif of water as a medium to reveal bodies was once again a revelation for the viewer, and we witness a woman and man disrobe ritualistically, using water in a purification.  We see hands vulnerable in water, we see exquisite slow motion of bodies immersing.   Bill Viola speaks in the programme of wanting to “create an image world that existed in parallel action to the stage”. So, although we are slightly confused by the mature opera singers onstage mirrored by their disparate internal projected selves, we trust the integrity of the intentions and wait.

And the wait is gloriously resolved at the climax of the production. Tristan and Isolde are for the first time facing each other onstage; they are bathed in a blue light that perfectly mirrors the blue of the exploding swimmers in the projection. This is a truly magnificent moment of opera/theater where tiny images travel towards us and reach visibility, floating with joy, a tangle of light and limbs.

This moment resembles nothing less than the angels on a cathedral ceiling, and you have the feeling that Wagner would be content with the pure synthesis of imagery and music.  Dudamel conducting at this moment was literally jumping in places, and we had an occasional glimpse of the maestro in focused and joyful action as he turned to include the distant chorus behind us.  The long-awaited unity was made all the sweeter by the disconnect and distances earlier in the act.  The climax is followed by a triumphant entrance of King Marke, and suddenly the entire concert hall was bathed in golden light as the orchestra celebrated.


Photo credit: Mathew Imaging/LA Phil.


The ensuing plot introduces King Marke and a night hunt in the woods where the perfect love is consummated “heart on heart, mouth on mouth, merged into one breath”, and Tristan is denounced as betraying King Marke and struck down in the ultimate punishment.

In Act 3 Tristan lies dying, singing prone on the block at the edge of the stage,  waiting for Isolde to appear to cure him, while Bill Viola’s video takes us on the journey of hallucinations and flashbacks in wavering imagery of ships, and a barely-seen female figure advancing.  The water motif is maximized in effect with shimmering, indistinct  images as the music painfully ascends and seeks resolution.

Most effectively, squares of different shaded light bathe performers in separate universes on the stage.  Isolde arrives too late, and stands silent in a square of warmth while Tristan (finally still and silent) is gradually immersed in shades of purple darkness. At the climax of the production, the other singers enter and enact their roles in both music and emblematic movement:  the world is unified and all of the singers are onstage in effective iconography in one flat plane in front of the orchestra.  The story is complete.

And in this final tableau, Isolde has the last comment: “… rising upward in the ocean of sound, in the infinite all of the cosmic breath to drown … into the highest purest joy” as the most electrifying image of the video installation shows Tristan’s body awash on a funeral bier, astonishingly breaking free and ascending.  The ending sublimation of death paralleled the music and libretto with overwhelming impact.

The excellence of the singers and orchestra amplified the powerful presentation of the opera, making it a truly a Los Angeles event and product of three potent LA artists, Maestro Gustavo Dudamel; director, Peter Sellars,  and video artist Bill Viola.

The opera plays through all three acts in two cycles at Disney Hall this December.  The production originated in 2004 and has been developed through time in partnership with the Paris Opera and Lincoln Center NYC among other venues.  My guess is that this will not be the end.