03 May 2007

not waving but drowning

Another delightful aftereffect of my trip to LA showed up about a day after my last post – the hacking cougher on the plane seems to have given me his horrific cold. Doubly-drugged and cough-dropped, I still went to my full complement of planned theater, because suffering for art is what I do. Slightly hazy, drug-inflected reminiscences will eventually follow, as if I were some hippie pretending the summer of love was a golden age.

Disney Hall is curvy and burnished with a slightly tropical inflection, much like the audience. I like it, but found it a little odd seeing it in reality for the first time – it’s only a few years old, but already so familiar, yet I didn’t have the feeling that I had in Venice (Italy, not the one near LA) that although it looked exactly like every picture and stage set of itself I’ve ever seen, yet it had some elusive quality, possibly just light or mist, that made it worth seeing in person. Gehry buildings are so striking they’re almost instant clichés, kind of like Tarantino’s movies, where Pulp Fiction made a huge impression and then became less distinctive in a matter of months as its innovations became commonplace and the follow-up films also seemed to be a bit more of the same. I suppose time will eventually mark them (buildings, movies, everything else) as period clichés or beloved landmarks. Disney sure beats Davies, at any rate.

As with several buildings I went to in LA, it’s a little difficult to tell where the main entrance is. For example, I went in what looked like a main entrance in the new cathedral, which sent me down a long, dark aisle that ended in an elaborate gilded Spanish reredos from the old cathedral, one of the occasional relics of Hispanic baroque gold or Victorian marmoreal elaboration amid the stripped-down modernistic pale sandstone. Make a right turn at the reredos and you only then find yourself in the huge cathedral space. There are sort of unfortunately realistic tapestries on the walls, with a parade of various Venerables, Blesseds, and Saints (including Joseph Vaz, another far-flung relative), but it’s also mostly in pale browns and tans like the stone and it gives the interior a somewhat beige effect. I guess the Latin in me was looking for scarlet and gold, equally suitable for cathedrals or concert halls. Disney Hall has several possible entrances; there is one that seems to be the “main” entrance, but it leads you into one of the swirly, small spaces inside. Once you step into the auditorium, which is much larger than looks possible from the street, you are suddenly in a magnificent space, with magnificent acoustics to match (both singers and some instrumentalists, notably horn players, were at various points above, behind, and on either side of us during the performance, as well as standing on stage where one might expect them in a semi-staged performance). I bought my ticket as soon as individual sales started, but the closest they could get me then was one of the lower right-hand terraces in the back of the hall. The seats are surprisingly comfortable, which is a good thing for a performance lasting five and a half hours (two half-hour intermissions included).

While waiting for the performance to begin I was wondering if the whole trip had been a huge mistake, given the cost and the trouble and the weirdness that had already happened and the people around me. Those behind me seemed to have no idea what they were about to see. Those in front of me seemed like bleached So Cal party girls, standing and waving their skinny arms and going “Whoo!” to attract their friends’ attention. I love Tristan to death, but because of that I’m oddly protective of it, and if you don’t know what you’re in for, if you’re not going to surrender to its mood, then it's a long haul and I fear how you’ll react. But the minute the music started, except for the occasional unnecessary whisper or program-rustle (people: put them on the floor! There’s nothing in there you need to see now!), or a few coughs bouncing around in the superb acoustics, the audience was rapt attention, and I was glad I’d made the trip. The party girl stood and cheered for Salonen with the same whoops and arm-wavings with which she’d greeted her friends, after she declared that “it was even better than the last time!” I’ve learned to suspend some of my instant judgments about audience members, having had to switch expectations many times, from the Boston dowager who turned out to be immersed in Alban Berg on down, but I was surprised, given the conversations around me, and pleasantly so, by the audience's mostly silent involvement.

The musical performance was superb. I heard orchestral details that I hadn’t even picked up at Bayreuth, and there was no fading throughout the long evening. I did prefer Bayreuth’s Robert Dean Smith as Tristan for his sweeter, more piercing tone, though Christian Franz (replacing the announced Alan Woodrow) was fine. This is the second time this season I’ve heard Christine Brewer’s Isolde, and I’d hear it again tomorrow if I could. Does it make sense to describe something as fiery yet creamy? Voices are difficult to describe without getting technical, and missing the point, or floating off into vague metaphor (is it like a fire burning? Or like a river of sweetest cream? or some ghastly-sounding combination thereof?). Just go listen if you can. The vocal commitment and power of Anne Sofie von Otter as Brangaene, and John Relyea as King Marke, could be guessed by anyone who’s heard them before, but every part was cast from strength. Among the others I particularly liked the clear sweet power of Michael Slattery as the Sailor (and later as the Shepherd) and Thomas Truhitte as Melot.

Video art normally is of fairly minimal interest to me – are the subsidized ironic juxtapositions of an art student more interesting than my channel-surfing? I’m not ruling it out, but seldom stick around long enough to find out – so I hadn’t seen a lot of Bill Viola’s work before this. Unlike the video (basically a rip-off of Godard’s Ave Maria) that Sellars showed with El Nino, this one was an added richness of the performance and not a distraction, with images ranging from the beautiful but standard to the breathtaking. Each act opened with long steady shots – of waves, of forests, of the coastline – that vaguely set the scene. Two actors portrayed Tristan and Isolde, in emotional synch but separately from the stage action, so that during Isolde’s narrative and curse and during the potion-drinking we saw the two on-screen slowly stripping and undergoing a sort of ritual purification, amid many water images. The second act used fire more, and of course fire is incredibly photogenic – I used to stare at fires for what seemed like hours as a child – but the use of fire and light contradicted what is going on in the words. Instead of the more conventional images of light = truth or fire = passion, Tristan and Isolde long for the moment when they can extinguish the torch and give themselves over to the truth of the dark night and the oblivion behind the night, when they can melt into the primordial. During the love duet we see the screen Isolde slowly lighting a full bank of votive candles, and as the camera very slowly pulls back we see larger candles above and below the rows of votive lights, and as it pulls back slowly still farther we see the flames reflected in the flat pool of water in front of her. Don’t be fooled by all the candles into thinking this looks like a Lifetime (television for women who fantasize about being stalked) Valentine’s special – the effect, particularly if you are a Catholic boy, is of a very profound and prayerful ritual. It is astonishingly beautiful, and completely wrong for what Tristan and Isolde are longing for in the music. King Mark’s narration is accompanied for its length by a steady shot of a sunrise, which is a perfect effect and which would work better if light (whether from flame or sun, and instead of the night-time darkness) hadn’t been featured earlier.

Appropriately enough the climactic effect accompanies the liebestod, and I wish I hadn’t read in the program beforehand how he did this, so that I could experience it fresh (uh, maybe I should put in a spoiler alert here). Viola filmed Tristan falling into the water, and then filmed a more gymnastic set of actors representing Tristan and Isolde diving into the water, and then ran the film backwards, so that you see the body (or bodies) lying immersed and then slowly rising to the surface amid bubbling waves, as if they were both drowning and ascending, which is perfect for the liebestod, and even if that had been the only part of the video that worked, instead of being just the best idea of many, it all would have been worth it.


Civic Center said...

"Are the subsidized ironic juxtapositions of an art student more interesting than my channel-surfing?" Thank you for encapsulating my feelings about video art in one pithy phrase.

I've heard that Bill Viola is the exception that proves the rule, but gaaaah, most of it is so awful. I happened to go to "El Nino" twice when it was being performed at Davies Hall and the second time I brought a sleep mask so I wouldn't have to look at that godawful Peter Sellars movie while the great music was being played.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

My seat for El Nino was in the orchestra, so I could pretty much avoid the movie by just watching the singers. I had friends in the balcony who were not so fortunate. I have the DVD of El Nino but haven't watched it yet, so I don't know how much of the Godard-ripoff appears there.
I don't know much about Viola except for what I saw last Tuesday, but I give him and Sellars credit for this video at least. It certainly helped solve some of the difficulties in staging Tristan.
SF MOMA recently had (maybe still has up)an exhibit of award-winning students -- one of them basically wanted to revive Victory Gardens, and her "installation" was mostly pictures of her helping people plant tomatoes. Damn, I plant tomatoes too, and like most gardeners even consider it an aesthetic/spiritual action, but no foundation is subsidizing my trips to the nursery. That's how I felt about the video artists vs channel-surfing.