The Met’s New Tristan: Musically Sumptuous, But Dramatically Inert

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, chorus and orchestra, Metropolitan Opera / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Metropolitan Opera House, New York City. 24.10.2016. (HS)

Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Nina Stemme (Isolde) (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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

Director – Mariusz Trelinski
Set Design – Boris Kudlicka
Costume Design – Marek Adamski
Lighting Design – Marc Heinz
Projection Design – Bartek Macias
Choreography – Tomasz Wygoda

There’s been a great deal of excitement over the Metropolitan Opera’s Tristan und Isolde, mostly along the lines of “music great, staging, feh.” After Monday’s seventh of eight performances, I found the chasm to be even broader, between elements of the staging and what emerged from the pit and the mouths of the singers.

The good stuff included Simon Rattle’s smart, incisive yet spacious conducting, subtly emphasizing key moments with extra levels of expression, using the sumptuous sound of the Met orchestra to especially great effect in the climaxes of each act. His synergy with the cast was remarkable as much for its singularity of purpose as for its balance, which allowed every note from the singers to emerge clearly.

You’d think with singers like soprano Nina Stemme, tenor Stuart Skelton and bass René Pape, who can produce the volume when required, that this would be easy. It’s not. Wagner’s dense orchestrations need to be carefully tuned to make their effect: this is very hard to do without losing the music’s essential thrust, but here, all felt perfectly organic.

As Isolde, Stemme sounded utterly fresh. She made powerful sounds at the big climaxes, colored her voice in moments of anger, fear or sexual passion, and brought it down to a soft croon when the emotional tinges benefited from it. All the while her voice extended to the far reaches of the enormous auditorium. Her acting seldom tipped over into histrionics, and when it did she quickly found a more incisive tone.

As Tristan (and like Stemme), Skelton’s loudness can sneak up on you. His sound is so supple and expressive that a listener may not realize how much power it wields, until his voice overwhelms an orchestra in full cry. In his scenes with Stemme, he cranked up the passion, both acting with as much intensity as their singing delivered.

In King Marke’s long Act II monologue, Pape centered on graceful stature and nobility of musical line to frame an impeccable scene. His sound, chocolate to the core, has soft edges and precision that make the words resonate as much as the music.

The director, Mariusz Trelinski, has said his dark staging was meant to emphasize the fraught nature of the original setting in a time of war. To accomplish this, the action is updated to the present, on a set done all in blacks and grays, partially lit by a harsh white glare. Only an occasional splash of deep red in Isolde’s gown (under a black trenchcoat), Tristan’s blue Navy uniform, or King Marke’s admiral officer whites intruded on this monochromatic palette.

Tristan’s ship in Act I, transporting the Irish princess Isolde to Cornwall to marry King Marke, is depicted as a cutaway of a modern warship. Isolde’s stateroom is stacked between Tristan’s at the bottom and the ship’s bridge at the top, connected by open stairways on the left. Following the action was like watching a wide-angle view of a football game instead of closeups, but the tense atmosphere was emphasized.

The ominous settings continued in Act II. As Marke and his troupe are off on a night hunt, Wagner placed the action in a garden. Here the protagonists’ extended scene, which culminates in their long-delayed love duet, was a storage hold stacked with bombs and cylindrical containers—a menacing atmosphere for the arrival of Marke and his men. But it took the charge out of the gloriously sung (if awkwardly acted) love duet.

Instead of a cliff, where a wounded Tristan spends the first half of Act II overlooking the sea and anticipates Isolde’s arrival, there is a sterile hospital room. The magnificent Liebestod — and Stemme was magnificent singing it — took place in the empty room, and instead of dying in transfiguration she cut her wrists before the final scene, making her death far more literal than Wagner intended.

In key moments, the one element of the staging that did work superbly was a series of white-on-black projections on a front scrim. Early on, video designer Bartek Macias created images that suggested a radar scope, but they morphed into glowing suns as the music became more passionate. Finally, as the Liebestod unfolded, the undulating image of the sea’s surface framed the top of the stage, gradually lowering as Isolde descended to her death.

Musically, the finish was magical, Rattle marshaling the orchestra into a pulse that ever so gradually gained traction, the sound broadening to become uncannily plush and warm. The final page, where the mysterious “Tristan chord” finally resolves, exhaled in a satisfying sense of arrival.

Harvey Steiman

For Jim Pritchard’s The Met: Live in HD Tristan und Isolde review click here.

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