live review Tristan Variations Copenhagen

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The Independent Culture
For a modern composer, to write one opera is daring enough, but to write 11... And yet, since 1964, that's just what the Dane, Bent Lorentzen, has done. And in his latest, Tristan Variations, he takes an even bigger risk, inviting comparison with one of the greatest operas of them all: Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

Wisely, Lorentzen largely avoids obvious references to Wagner in his ingenious electronic score. The famous "Tristan Chord" is there, fleetingly (odd if it weren't), but overall the Wagnerian elements are transformed beyond recognition. The result is a dense, high-energy soundscape, sometimes very loud in the small space of the Kaleidoskop Theatre, but hugely effective as one important strand in a quasi-Wagnerian "total work of art".

As its title suggests, the piece reworks bits of Tristan - the doomed lovers, the betrayed husband - but mixes them with elements of Wagner's own adulterous affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, and hints of the fate of Wagner's patron, "Mad" King Ludwig of Bavaria. Mathilde's husband - given a show-stopping performance by tenor Ole Hedegaard - is not the mild, forbearing man he seems to have been, but a grotesquely comic capitalist monster, who achieves a hilarious sexual climax with a well-placed revolver. As Wagner/ Tristan/ Ludwig, baritone Morten Frank Larsen was impressive too; in a sense the opera is about Wagner as myth-maker, inventing himself as lover or romantic revolutionary. Soprano Lene Rasmussen as Mathilde/ Isolde sounded as beautiful as she looked, like Larsen holding to her notes heroically in the midst of Lorentzen's teeming electronic sounds.

But this is "sound-theatre", not music-with-drama, and the 23-year-old producer, Kasper Holten, deserves much of the credit for its success. His staging - set around a circular pool, with a revolving slide, in front of a stark metal wall - amplifies all the important elements in the story, while adding one of its own: love in the time, not of cholera, but of another sickness, that of rampant, deadening mechanisation. Lorentzen's electronics both reflect this and register a painful protest. Unusually for an electronic score, there's a conductor (Flemming Windekilde). Practically, he gives the singers the beat and - discreetly - the odd helpful pitch. Unusually, he also controls dynamics, and even some of the mixing. An element of interpretation is thus restored to what could have been a purely mechanical job.

Could the piece work here? It would need a good translation, but it seems to have drawn audiences from way beyond Copenhagen's new-music and opera-going circles. Prejudice against new "classical" music is more entrenched among English arty-types than it is on the Continent. Even so, the experiment might be worth trying.