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In tributes to ‘Tristan,’ Salonen and CSO lack forces and focus to embrace Wagner epic

Submitted by on Feb 23, 2013 – 10:22 am

Review: Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with opera soloists in the complete second act of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” and supplementary Beyond the Score concerts, through Feb. 24.

By Nancy Malitz

When Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen was music director of Los Angeles Philharmonic, he undertook a total immersion in the music of  Richard Wagner’s “Tristan  and Isolde,” an opera of lasting influence and extraordinary musical language, newly coined to express ecstatic, forbidden love and its all-consuming anguish.

At the time Salonen explained that for such an iconic work it would be “more fascinating to put it into a new context and to illuminate it from various angles.” Thus his collaboration on a multimedia production with video artist Bill Viola and director Peter Sellars  that paired four hours of intensely dreamlike slow-motion imagery with the complete opera.

From its semi-staged debut in Los Angeles in 2004, to later installments in New York City, Paris, Helsinki and the UK, that time-bending “Tristan” was the it ticket.

Today Salonen’s enthusiasm for exploring this operatic icon is undiminished. In addition to two concert performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of “Tristan’s” mesmerizing second act, with a sextet of soloists from the opera realm, the conductor engaged in two educational “Beyond the Score” performances of “Tristan” orchestral excerpts that explored the controversy over Wagner’s musical nugget called the Tristan chord and its breakthrough potential to lead the ear well beyond the customary harmonic bounds.

Neither effort proved entirely successful, although Salonen’s synergy with the Chicago Symphony musicians has breakthrough potential of its own.  He is an active composer as well as a conductor, a visionary risk-taker and contemporary artistic spirit who views all earlier music through an enlivening  prism. The orchestra’s partnership with him is well worth sustaining.

Salonen revels in the oceanic stillness that belies “Tristan’s” churning power, and he manipulates an orchestra’s inner lines into a ripple and flow of textures and colors that dappled the CSO’s luxurious sound.

Still, the practical reality of the hall’s dry brightness and the variable ensemble of singers did not seem to interest Salonen as much as the composer-to-composer meeting of minds, and there were times in the opening concert that he simply let it rip, allowing the orchestra to crash through the vocal forces to carry Wagner’s thought.

At the second outing — a “Beyond the Score” presentation of orchestral excerpts, with supporting actors and video imagery but without most of the singers — Salonen and the orchestra achieved an extraordinary rapport. But there was a different problem: the effort to illuminate the climate of controversy surrounding the impact of Wagner’s music devolved into multiple scenes of characters bickering, a fitful flow of stops and starts that destroyed the very sense of endless transformation at the core of Wagner’s new aesthetic.

There were compensating rewards in both cases. Although tenor Stefan Vinke and soprano Linda Watson, as the lovers Tristan and Isolde, lacked the command and stamina to compete with the orchestral power assembled, bass-baritone John Relyea’s monologue as the betrayed King Mark was deeply moving and in this scene the music functioned as an operatic whole.

Another brilliant patch involved mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who delivered Brangäne’s watch-tower warning to the lovers from Orchestra Hall’s balcony with ringing, charismatic urgency. (Tenor Sean Panikkar, as Tristan’s wily betrayer Melot, and Daniel Eifert as Kurwenal, Tristan’s loyal retainer, filled out the cast.)

In all, however, one was left disappointed, with a feeling of unrequited expectation that is quite another matter from the glorious frustration and love-death Wagner intended.

Salonen is scheduled to be in Chicago for another week. The Chicago Chamber Musicians have scheduled two of his compositions on a Feb. 25 concert at the Spertus Institute with Salonen taking part. And  the CSO follows up with another Salonen program — featuring Sibelius, Lutoslawski and Tchaikovsky — that brings cellist and CSO creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma into the fold.

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Captions and credits: Home page and top: Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  (Photo by Todd Rosenberg) Descending: Esa-Pekka Salonen. (Photo by Katja Tähjä) Artists take their bows, left to right, tenor Stefan Vinke, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, soprano Linda Watson, bass-baritone  John Relyea, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. Bass-baritone  John Relyea and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. (CSO photos by Todd Rosenberg)

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