The LA Phil conducted by Gustavo Dudamel presented the “Tristan Project”, based on Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde,” in three separate 80-minute concert performances at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Photo courtesy of Mathew Imaging/LA Phil

The “Tristan Project”, which was first performed in 2004, is an auditorily immersive and visually head-turning production directed by the internationally renowned Peter Sellars with a large-scale video installation by acclaimed artist Bill Viola.

I attended the performance of Act I and when I say head-turning I mean it quite literally.  One’s focus of attention moves from the vibrancy of the orchestra, to the enthralling video projections behind them, to the captivating opera singers, soprano  Miina-Liisa Värelä as Isolde and mezzo-soprano Okka Von Der Gamerau as Brangäne, sitting downstage, to tenor Michael Weinius as Tristan appearing, along with other performers, high above the stage along the railing of the concert hall’s upper terraces, and then back again to above the video screen to read the English translation of the German lyrics.

Based on a medieval epic poem about star-crossed Irish lovers, who in Act I are on a boat travelling across the sea admonishing each other with anger and threats of retribution. In the relationship dynamic, Isolde does most of the talking trying to cajole the mostly silent Tristan to share his feelings.  As the operatic lyrics are sung, the video displays actors portraying the couple’s inner earthly beings. Viola’s signature use of hyper slow motion portrays  the nuance of their expression as they vulnerably bare their body and soul.

Photo courtesy of Mathew Imaging/LA Phil

Act I is about the purification of the earthly body and concludes with Tristan and Isolde, who intending to die together by drinking a poison, are tricked by Brangäne who switches the poison with a potion that allows them to release their toxicities and fall in love.  As Viola’s video had begun with images of a turbulent sea , it concludes with the naked actors submerged and freely floating in more pure and tranquil water.

The LA Phil has a pre-concert “Upbeat Live” talk and on this evening Peter Sellars provided us with his insight into the psychological, emotional and spiritual aspects of this work.  He alluded to how Wagner, in his time, explored mystic and Buddhist teachings and that Viola, who has a Buddhist practice, creates imagery within another work of art  that evokes an experience of what is below the surface.

Artists in the performance also Included: bass-baritone Eric Owens (Marke), baritone Ryan Speedo Green (Kurwenal), Tenor Robert Stahley (Melot), the Los Angeles Master Chorale with Artistic Director Grant Gershon and in video performances, Jeff Mills as Tristan’s Earthly Body and Lisa Rhoden as Isolde’s Earthly Body. Visit the LA Phil at