Warsaw Première of Mariusz Treliński’s Dark, Evocative Tristan und Isolde

PolandPoland Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatr Wielki, Stefan Soltesz (conductor), Polish National Opera, Moniuszko Auditorium, Teatr Wielki, Warsaw. 18.06.2016 (RP)

Tristan und Isolde © Krzysztof Bielinski
Tristan und Isolde © Krzysztof Bielinski

Co-produced by: Metropolitan Opera, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing
Director: Mariusz Treliński
Set Designer: Boris Kudlička
Choreographer: Tomasz Wygoda
Costumes: Marek Adamski
Chorus Master: Mirosław Janowski
Dramaturgists: Piotr Gruszczyński and Adam Radecki

Tristan: Jay Hunter Morris
Isolde: Melanie Diener
King Mark: Reinhard Hagen
Kurwenal: Tómas Tómasson
Brangäne: Michaela Selinger
Melot: Mateusz Zajdel
Shepherd/Young Sailor: Zbigniew Malak
Steersman: Mikołaj Trąbka
The Boy: Kosma Łoś

“If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” I may have lived outside of the United States for the past thirteen years, but when it comes to New York City and the Metropolitan Opera, for me those words still hold a grain of truth. Mariusz Treliński, the artistic director of the Polish National Opera, had success at the Met in 2015 with his stagings of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. His Tristan und Isolde will open the Met’s 2016/17 season. Coupled with the fact that the production premiered earlier this year in Baden-Baden and will travel to Beijing, an ever more important operatic center, what further proof does one need that Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki has made it? It is not only Treliński’s fine work as stage director that makes the Teatr Wielki an operatic force to be reckoned with, but the entire package. The musical standards are high, with the cast assembled for these three performances a mix of international stars and impressive local talent.

The Act I set is a cross section of a modern ship, a dark, oppressive place, with the crew dressed more like commandos than sailors. Isolde’s movements are monitored and projected on huge screens. A brutal execution-style murder takes place in one of the cabins, and an occasional red light or the glare of spotlights slice through the darkness and assault one’s senses. The second act takes place on the bridge of the ship, an equally gloomy and threatening place, enveloped in mist. At the beginning of Act III, Tristan is in a hospital bed with monitoring screens emitting an eerie green glow. The final scene is Tristan’s funeral, with white crosses and lilies providing a stark contrast to the somber black. Most of the time, the cast is similarly attired in black or a near equivalent, save for Isolde and King Mark. Beneath her black coat, Isolde wears a dress of claret-colored velvet. King Mark greats the doomed lovers in a brilliant white military uniform, although he dons a long, black leather coat for the final scene.

Melanie Diener is a noble, stoic Isolde, who leaves no doubt as to her courage: she rushes out of her cabin to confront Tristan, heedless of the menacing guards and ship’s stifling atmosphere. Isolde holds no terrors for her vocally. Diener approaches Wagner much as she did her Mozart roles, singing with a seamless column of sound, spinning out long phrases, and seeming never to breathe. The uncommonly rich, dark lower range of her voice ascends with ease to the firm, secure top. In the final scene, she appeared, veiled and grief stricken, holding an enormous bunch of lilies that fell to the ground as she began the “Liebestod.”

Jay Hunter Morris understands his voice and its limitations: he has said that he doesn’t have a voice “where I can just open up and be glorious.” His best singing and most compelling acting came in Act III. There the vocal demands of Tristan are more in line with his strengths, unlike the Act II duet where he had to compete with Diener’s impressive waves of sound. That being said, his voice is sizable enough to cut through Wagner’s orchestration, and he made it through the evening vocally unscathed: no mean feat when it come to the role of Tristan.

Helden baritone Tómas Tómasson was excellent as Kurwenal, his clear voice projecting effortlessly into the hall. The emotional impact of the final act was all the more real due to his sensitive acting and singing. Reinhard Hagen was a towering King Mark, both vocally and physically. As with Tómasson’s Kurwenal, his King Mark was a nuanced character, showing real empathy over the doomed lovers’ fate in the final scene. The Brangäne of Michaela Selinger, clearly an audience favorite, was likewise a carefully etched character. Tenor Zbigniew Malak made a vivid vocal impression in his brief appearances as a shepherd and a young sailor.

Treliński’s chief strength as director is his ability to create clear, uncluttered scenes with the focus on the characters and the action. There are no distractions. He takes much the same approach with the individual characterizations. An especially effective bit of stagecraft was the boy who meandered about as Tristan lay on the hospital bed. His movements were beautifully choreographed – simple, natural, and so effective. Treliński’s sure touch faltered only in the Act II love duet where Tristan and Isolde appeared dazed by the magic potion, operating on different physical and emotional planes: a chasm exaggerated by the contrasting vocal approaches of Morris and Diener.

Purists will bemoan certain disconnects between text and action, as in Act I when Tristan offers Isolde a handgun rather than a sword. Spare as Treliński’s use of color was, he did use it effectively. When the Isolde and Tristan kiss for the first time, an explosion of colored stars is projected on the scrim. The two lovers were almost giddy with delight as they embraced in the swirl of color. Such moments were rare, and the only real complaint I have is that it was all too dark. One had to struggle at times to see what was happening. That is an easy fix in this otherwise compelling production.

Stefan Soltesz did fine work on the podium. His long, sculpted phrasings were ideally suited to the strengths of Diener’s Isolde. The string sound was especially rich and throbbing with emotion, at times silvery. Act III’s extended English horn solos were expertly dispatched. With such sounds coming out of the pit, Soltesz and the fine orchestra of the Teatr Wielki ensured that Wagner was well served.

Rick Perdian

Leave a Comment