By Rebecca Schmid
BADEN-BADEN — In Mariusz Treliński’s staging of Tristan und Isolde, which premiered at the Berlin Philharmonic’s Easter Festival here under the baton of music director Simon Rattle, transcendence by love-death is barely possible within the confines of a war machine between Cornwall and Ireland. It was an eerie coincidence that the terrorist attacks in Brussels took place the morning of the second performance at the Festspielhaus on March 22, prompting a moment of silence to remember the victims.
The opera’s setting on a modern-day warship not only illustrates perception of Europe “as an empire of repression, discipline and surveillance,” according to program notes by Treliński’s dramaturgs, but the continent’s potential fate: “At a time when Europe threatens to break apart…the black sun of melancholy which illuminates the way in Wagner’s opera is surely no ghost light (Irrlicht).”
The concept does not play out completely in the production, which will open the Metropolitan Opera’s 2016-17 season Sept. 26 under Rattle. But the dramatic and aesthetic realism of Treliński and his team certainly strikes a nerve, offering a darkly cynical take on this ancient myth-turned-philosophical romance. (Other performances are scheduled at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera in Warsaw, June 12-18, and the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing on dates not yet unannounced. )
In the first act, the metal-encased chambers of the ship are stacked like rooms of a dollhouse so that the audience can peer in on more than one scene (sets by Boris Kudlička). While Isolde confides to her maid, Brangäne, in the first act, Tristan remains in his control chamber, now steering the ship, now spying on her in a video that is projected across the stage (Bartek Macias). Armed soliders dance on the roof as it pulls into Cornwall (choreography by Tomasz Wygoda).
Less convincing is the production’s attempt to portray Tristan not only as the victim of emotional scars caused by having never known his parents, but also as the scion of a “proud family of neurotics.” The love potion which he and Isolde drink in the ship’s cellar barely takes effect until the second act, and even then their spiritual journey takes the form of video that cruises through natural landscapes and into the cosmos.
King Mark and a cohort of marines catch the starry-eyed Tristan and Isolde in a swanky basement bar, and the duel with the courtier Melot ensues. But Tristan is so conflicted that he ends up stabbing himself — an aberration from the libretto which is not so credible given the fact that he is outnumbered by Mark’s men.
The third act turns out to be most disappointing. Although it is an interesting idea to depict the landscape of Tristan’s unconscious, Treliński comes up with few fresh ideas. The child actor representing the knight as he lies in a coma rings a bit too strongly of Stefan Herheim’s 2008 production of Parsifal, and projections of a barren forest recall his own double-bill of Bluebeard’s Castle/Iolanta, which traveled to the Met last year.
The sterile final set for Tristan — a hospital bed, a glass wall where the lights of Isolde’s ship flash through the void — leaves little room for eroticism. During the final number, “Mild und leise,” in which Isolde drowns in endless desire, she and Tristan sit side by side like estranged cousins.
Eva-Maria Westbroek’s voluminous soprano nevertheless captured the huge range of emotion in Wagner’s score. Despite some unsteady high notes in the first act, she bounced back into an indefatigable presence. The Tristan of tenor Stuart Skelton was not as reliable. His nasal timbre loosened up in Act II but had raspy moments in the final scenes. Dramatically, however, he fit the director’s vision of an emotionally inexperienced, repressed character.
Nearly stealing the show was Stephen Milling as King Mark, with his weighty bass, crisp diction, and unmannered stage presence. Sarah Connolly gave an admirable performance as Brangäne, never forcing her creamy timbre and capturing the maid’s moral conviction. The Kurwenal of baritone Michael Nagy was both dangerously subservient and slick supporting the production’s martial focus.
Tenor Roman Sadnik was an insidious stage presence as Melot and Thomas Ebenstein memorable in the comprimario roles of a Young Sailor and a Shepherd. The fine men of the Philharmonia Chorus Vienna, singing from the pit, rounded out the cast.
Led by Rattle, the Philharmonic brought a steely beauty to the score but rarely captured its heaving passion. The musicians were at their best at emotional extremes — furious when Tristan curses the potion, transparent when the orchestra subsides after Isolde’s arrival. But swelling crescendi were few in both the overture and Isolde’s transfiguration scene. Whether or not intentionally, Rattle’s direct, often aggressive, approach had the positive effect of evoking the society Treliński depicts.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.