Tristan und Isolde at the Met

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s epic love story Tristan und Isolde raises questions about the balance of the benefits over the costs of a concept-driven updated interpretation of basically a simple medieval love story, to the extent that Wagner was ever capable of making anything simple.

The production is by Mariusz Treliński, the man who brought us Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartok’s nightmarish Bluebeard’s Castle in the winter of 2015. Again he is joined by set designer Boris Kudlička, lighting designer Marc Heinz, and projection artist Bartek Macias. OperaMetro called the double bill “the Met at its best,” and while the successful elements from that pair are here in the new Tristan, elements which make the story to a greater degree emotionally disturbing and also fascinating, they also at times push the whole thing far off the mark, such that it, well, misses the boat.

But first the good news: all around this Tristan und Isolde is magnificent musically. Sir Simon Rattle leads the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a gripping rendition of the score; the five principal singers are strong proponents of their roles, and the audience on my night, the evening of the third performance, energized them with applause mounting to rapture at the opera’s conclusion.

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme as Tristan and Isolde

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme as Tristan and Isolde

Nina Stemme, in excellent voice, is perhaps the most human, most warm Isolde I’ve seen, if not as ethereally sexy as Waltraud Meier was at Bayreuth years ago under Barenboim. Stemme’s anger, despair, and ecstasy give dimensions to her character not frequently encountered in the role. From the tone of Stuart Skelton’s opening lines in Act I one hoped he would continue in such good vocal estate throughout the entire evening. He did, and this even without the traditional cut in Act III. The role of Tristan is among the most grueling in the tenor repertory: it’s one thing to do it at all, quite another to do it as well as Skelton does. The soulful René Pape is König Marke, stately and ‘wounded’ as ever; Ekaterina Gubanova is a buttoned up Brangäne and Evgeny Nikitin is the loyal, caring Kurwenal. Alex Richardson is a forceful Shepherd; Neal Cooper is Melot; Tony Stevenson sings the offstage Sailor.

In Mariusz Treliński’s production we can’t miss the boat, try as one might, because it’s right in our faces, at least through Acts I and II. Tristan, deemed, as you know, a hero in the text, is the ship’s commanding officer, stiff, rule-bound, and strict. Isolde and Brangäne are more or less captives held below deck. Tristan executes another prisoner with a bullet to the head. Is this a flashback of his victory over Morold? Don’t know. Move on.

The ghost of Tristan's father appears to a wounded Tristan in Act II

The ghost of Tristan's father appears to a wounded Tristan in Act II

The Prelude to the opera, however, presents the backstory with film footage. It's a spin implicit in Wagner’s text, but, obviously, Treliński’s realization updates it here. We see a young boy, Tristan, comforted by his father, who was also an officer in the Navy, white uniform, medals. He apparently commits suicide and then torches the family house, leaving young Tristan to the safety of the surrounding property. Was the suicide because of some dishonorable behavior? Is Tristan, through his love for Isolde and betrayal of Marke, destined to repeat his father’s fate? The shade of his dead father appears at times in this production;Tristan’s fatal wound is in the same location as that of his father. The burned-out frame of the family house also appears. Young Tristan passes a lit match...

The deeply traumatic memory of that evening seems to weave the threads for Tristan’s long epic rant in Act III and also for directorial decisions along the way. When, delirious, he says, referring to the suffering he endures by Isolde’s absence, “This terrible yearning that sears me, this ravaging fire that consumes me…,” is he maybe equating the passionate yearning he feels for Isolde, who is not with him now, with the deep pain he feels over the loss of his father in the burning house? The link also accounts for the character of Young Tristan, acted by Jonathan O’Reilly.

The gain? Tristan is now much more than just a tenor who gets through the vocally brutal Act III: he’s a profoundly lonely, dying man, as already defined by the music, whose only chance at real passion through Isolde came at the price of his betrayal of the system, as defined by his relationship to its commander-in-chief King Marke. At least for me, the emotional impact of the opera is greatly enhanced, especially in this last Act.

Isolde joins Tristan in death during the Liebestod

Isolde joins Tristan in death during the Liebestod

These elements are lost in most productions, but they are not really an interpretive stretch: Wagner, given to loneliness and depression during this period, sharply felt the loss of his parents, as I’m sure most of us do. Interesting that Wagner left Siegfried wondering about his lost father and mother in Forest Murmurs of Act II when he first formed the conception of Tristan und Isolde; Parsifal, as well, lost his father before birth and his mother died alone, abandoned by her son. Tristan und Isolde is the sound picture of loss and loneliness. Think about it. Time and space forbid further expansion of these thematic links.

If the above is the benefit, what is the cost? The enormous multi-decked ship, a sub hunter probably, fills the stage to the proscenium in Act I. As in Iolanta/Bluebeard, closed spaces, here cabins and control rooms, compartmentalize the action; the spaces can be revealed, covered, altered; this arrangement forces a lot of travel up and down stairs, which, of course, keeps the action moving. One of the eternal obstacles in staging Tristan und Isolde is creating ‘action’ on essentially three unchanging sets with few characters. No marches and choral numbers in Tristan. Plus Isolde is on stage for all of the first two acts; Tristan is on stage for at least a third of Act I and almost all of Acts II and III. Little wonder what the great Birgit Nilsson revealed when asked her secret for getting through Tristan: wear comfortable shoes.

While the setting for Act I is tolerable to a degree, Act II sinks the ship. The love duet takes place on what appears to be the radar tower. To my ears the music begs for the moonlit moss in the shadows of the great forests surrounding the castle (Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande gets it perfectly right musically too!). The signal for Tristan’s approach is some intense lights shined in your face (more than once). The tower turns and disappears during Brangäne’s Watch, which becomes a series of projected consciousness-altering swirls through this delicately shimmering, wonderful section of the score. It serves to mask a scene change to what appears to be the ship’s arsenal, depth charges, cannon shells, and the like. Tristan and Isolde, who have, I guess, decided to tour the ship from top to bottom, are discovered by Melot, King Marke, and other MPs. No reason this scene could not have been realized on shore, where the world is less angular, more green, and under the magic of a full moon.

The final Act is in a sterile hospital (?) room with monitors and a gurney, on which, at the end Isolde will take Tristan’s place, her Liebestod more on the Death side than the Love side here. The skirmish before Marke and Brangäne’s arrival is just lights flashing behind a black curtain: no one ever seems to get this part right.

I still haven’t figured out the red dress bit, and I’m not sure where Isolde comes and goes at the end of Act II. She is there when he sings to her, but could she be a hallucination? Or Tristan’s Oedipal dream, speaking of mothers?

Still, I count this Tristan und Isolde as among the best I’ve seen, certainly musically and dramatically, if not always conceptually or scenically. Treliński’s conception spins Tristan’s lonely tale in a way that adds to an already emotionally overwrought third Act It's a good thing. I’m off to the HD Saturday, for sure.

Reviewed performance date: October 3, 2016.

Photos: Ken Howard

Enjoy! No overcoat on the walk to the car last night…heaven! Complete road closure on the Hutch after midnight…not.