The Met’s Musically Strong Tristan is Lost at Sea

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Broadcast live to the Odeon Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, 8.10.2016. (JPr)

The Met’s Tristan und Isolde Act I (c) Ken Howard


Production – Mariusz Treliński
Set designer – Boris Kudlička
Costume designer – Marek Adamski
Lighting designer – Marc Heinz
Projection designer – Bartek Macias
Choreographer – Tomasz Wygoda

Isolde – Nina Stemme
Brangäne – Ekaterina Gubanova
Tristan – Stuart Skelton
Kurwenal – Evgeny Nikitin
King Marke – René Pape
Melot – Neal Cooper

Live in HD Director – Gary Halvorson
Live in HD Host – Deborah Voigt

I am going to start with the ‘elephant in the room’: in 2016 performances of Tristan und Isolde – and Wagner in general – should not be cut. (In fact I would even be for restoring the second verse to ‘In fernem Land’ in Lohengrin that Wagner himself cut before its premiere.) Here Sir Simon Rattle restored the previously ‘traditional’ excision in the Act II duet which James Levine had reopened when he conducted it at the Met; here celebrating its 50th anniversary at Lincoln Centre and the 100th Live in HD transmission. (The English National Opera’s Tristan and Isolde was also cut and Stuart Skelton sang Tristan there too, and this casts some doubt about his stamina for the role …or it is probably entirely coincidental.)

All this tended to undermine for me what seemed to be some of the best work I have heard from Rattle and I have never been much of an admirer before. Of course this – as everything I write about the musical performance – must be taken in context that it was heard through the cinema speakers. Rattle recently revealed how after being given access to the score Mahler used when conducting the opera in Vienna he always conducts Tristan giving some attention to his annotations: ‘One of the most interesting things Mahler puzzled through was the problem of balance. You can approach Tristan as a carpet of sound, and the singers come in and out of that carpet. But Mahler wanted the singers to be heard, so he terraced the dynamics, like he did in his symphonies. His is a very original way of letting the singers come through the thick textures in Tristan. It is not a matter of the orchestra just being very quiet, but a real balancing of the voices in the orchestra with the voices on the stage.’ Rattle repeated much of this in an interesting backstage interview with Deborah Voigt who – as everyone kept reminding her and us – was a former Isolde on the Met stage and ended with ‘Thank you Gustav!’ Rattle and his orchestra produced a wonderfully translucent sounding account of the work which seemed nearly faultless in the combination of surge, sweep and exaltation, as well as, holding its internal and exterior aspects and all the eroticism and transcendalism in perfect balance. Sadly, what was seen on stage did not match this in any way.

The new production by Mariusz Treliński which arrived at the Met via Baden-Baden and Warsaw does not equal the success of his 2015 Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (review). Maybe it was necessary to see the complete stage pictures, but I felt at a lost as to what the director was on about for most of it and how it related in any way to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The director and his set designer, Boris Kudlička, bring us a contemporary warship for most of Acts I and II. Treliński appears to take Tristan’s lines in Act II about Isolde following him to the land where the sun’s light does not shine for repetitions from time to time of a solar eclipse and other lines in Act III about the death of his parents for some backstory about them perishing in a fire started by his father. There is much fiddling throughout with a lighter which loses impact the more we see it, as does the huge sonar scope and the ship riding rough seas we repeatedly see in Bartek Macias’s videography.

Act I begins and we see Isolde being transported to Cornwall to marry its king, Marke, and confined to a fairly functional looking stateroom. The ship is being navigated on the top deck by Tristan, Marke’s adopted heir, surrounded by all the technology controlling the ship whilst he is also keeping Isolde under surveillance. The first two acts now play out throughout this three-deck warship. In a flashback during Isolde’s Act I narrative we see the blindfolded Morold, her fiancé, executed in cold blood by Tristan, here a naval officer keen to rise up the ranks. There is a particularly postmodern level of violence between the characters. On the ship, Isolde – as expected – wants to drink poison with Tristan because although she has feelings for him she cannot condone what he did. Brangäne – as we also know – substitutes this for a ‘love potion’. It probably is ineffectual and Treliński just shows it bringing their suppressed desires out into the open …but to what consequence?

In Act II when the lovers furtively meet at night it takes place here in a kind of lookout post before they appear to descend into a hold full of barrels. At the climax of the truncated duet they are discovered by King Marke’s henchmen brandishing flashlights who beat up Tristan. The king appears in the white navel uniform of an officer of the highest rank who seems more puzzled than angry about Tristan’s betrayal. What happens to Isolde was something of a mystery as she is there only in Tristan’s imagination as he prepares – as here – to shoot himself. For the final act Tristan initially lies fatally wounded on a hospital bed and his adjutant, Kurwenal, knows he will not live, nor will he ever see Isolde again before he dies, though he is not willing to let him know he knows. During his Act III ravings Tristan roams the burnt out shell of his parents’ home and a boy, his younger self, crisscrosses the stage with the lighter of course, as if Tristan blames himself for what happened. Apart from Tristan being an orphan this has nothing to do with the ‘proper’ story. Tristan is dead before Isolde arrives and along with King Marke they come to mourn at an empty bed. There seems there can be no production of Tristan und Isolde these days (English National Opera and Bayreuth) without the characters self-harming. Here before singing her Transfiguration (‘Liebestod’) – the musings on ‘erotic death’ and Tristan’s ‘resurrection’ – Isolde slashes her wrist precipitating their ‘reunion’. In this production this was a perfectly sensible resolution to the rapture of requited passion.

It is not surprising that this Tristan und Isolde performance fielded so many accomplished singing-actors, since as the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, hinted – when interviewed before the opera began – this has been the result of the growth in recent years of live opera transmissions. What was less predictable was how few Americans there were in the cast with two Russians, one Australian, one Swede, one German, one Brit (Neal Cooper as Tristan’s brutal naval officer rival) and only two American in minor roles, Tony Stevenson as the young sailor and Alex Richardson as the shepherd – or hospital guard! – in Act III.

Nina Stemme was on screen a remarkable Isolde by any standards both vocally and dramatically. She brought her character truly to life (in Live in HD director Gary Halvorson’s close-ups) and embodied her vengeful fury in Act I and her yearning and grief during the subsequent acts. In the theatre I have found her voice rather too dark-hued at times yet here she sounded much brighter and I worry how much the sound engineers had to do with that? The finest Tristan of this generation is Stephen Gould, an American, but here they cast Australian Stuart Skelton. He is still getting to grips with the role having sung it for the first time with Rattle in Baden-Baden then learnt it in English for ENO last summer; by contrast Stemme is approaching her 100th Isolde. His burly Tristan reminded me too much of Florestan and Peter Grimes. He can sing the notes and is clearly in the grip of Tristan’s conflicting emotions and inner turmoil but, for me, is yet to make the character his own and might have been watching too many DVDs. The remarkable bass René Pape – astonishingly working with Rattle for the first time – was King Marke and sang with his familiar authority, dignity and compassion. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Brangäne displayed genuine affection and concern for Isolde, singing earnestly and with sufficient vocal contrast such that not for one moment did she sound a potential Isolde, as too many can do these days. As her counterpart the heavily tattooed Evgeny Nikitin was similarly devoted to – and protective of – Tristan and a willing participant in his Act III delusions. In his role debut his gruff bass-baritone sounded more suitable for Alberich than Kurwenal.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the Met’s Live in HD transmission in 2016/17 visit

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