Even sets got applause opening night. Engaging `Tristan' from daring young company. Unencumbered by tradition, L.A.'s year-old resident opera is making a splash with its innovative production of a Wagner classic, designed by artist David Hockney and staged by director Jonathan Miller.

THE Los Angeles Music Center Opera's first foray into Wagner is a collaborative triumph of sound and sight, with sumptuous orchestral accompaniment and innovative lighting. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, with Zubin Mehta as guest conductor, has never played more winningly. Vocally and dramatically, however, the production (which continues at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through Dec. 20) is less consistently satisfying, climbing from a plateau of static competence to occasional peaks of inspired emotion.

As the first plaintive strains of Wagner waft from the orchestra, a curtain title that reads ``Tristan und Isolde, by Richard Wagner'' seems to dissipate miraculously, while the abstract shapes of a ship's bow appear, with Proustian inertia, as if out of mist.

More than just a subtly creative force, the light-play remains central throughout each of the opera's three acts. It bathes the three David Hockney sets in provocative dimensions of both physical depth and emotive temperature. The sets themselves manage to combine inscrutable whimsy and ineffable charm without detracting from the essentially tragic nature of the work. The lighting (achieved with a new technology called Vari-Lite, which uses no follow-spots) not only marks the passage of day into night into morning, but mirrors the sublime and redemptive aspirations of the score and the libretto's tale of passion and tragedy.

In the first scene, this means illuminating Mr. Hockney's wonderfully billowy sails, themselves two-dimensional yet seemingly full of air, with light that appears to reflect off the sea and at the same time to show the changing angle of the sun. There are bright spirals of blue and red on the ship's deck, bright orange planking, and black swatches on the towering masts.

The singers' costumes - punctuating each scene with spectacularly rich velvet in tawny gold and orange-scarlet, red, purple, and green tones - are illuminated as preciously as icons beneath glass.

In the second act, two-dimensional swirls of white disappearing back into the stage suggest a forest. Act III is part garrison embattlement, part threatening gorge. And, given Wagner's 4-hour score, all the sets add visual excitement and elegance to a work that is aurally rich but often visually austere.

Of the singers, only Jeannine Altmeyer's Isolde is of special note. An understudy of Birgit Nilsson and follower of Kirsten Flagstad, she has sung the role in eight other productions. Her full, noble, and lush tones consistently overpowered those of William Johns's Tristan. She also projected more theatricality than the others in the cast: Florence Quivar as Brang"ane, Roger Roloff as Kurwenal, Martti Talvela as King Mark.

The production won a standing ovation from the opening-night crowd Sunday, with special applause for each of the sets.

Jonathan Miller directed. Part of the credit for the lighting effects goes to consultant Wally Russell. The production was partly funded by AT&T.

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