Met’s New ‘Tristan’ Sets Bright Voices Against Dark View

Mariusz Treliński's new production of Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde,' with sets by Boris Kudlička, places Act I aboard a modern warship. Photos by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
Mariusz Treliński’s new production of Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde,’ with sets by Boris Kudlička, places Act I aboard a modern warship. Photos by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK — Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s hypnotic meditation on love and death, has returned to the Metropolitan Opera in a new production by Mariusz Treliński. An evening of splendid performances overcame a dark and fussy staging, making for a triumphant opening of the new season.

Isolde (Nina Stemme) and Tristan (Stuart Skelton) do not start off on the best of terms.
Isolde (Nina Stemme) is cool, at first, toward Tristan (Stuart Skelton).

Tristan has a long history at the Met, beginning with its U.S. premiere in 1886, three years after the house opened. A New York Times critic called it the “first performance in America of a work not wanted outside of Germany, and not too often there.” But this blazingly modern work became a company staple, performed at least a few times a year well into the 1960s, including regular run-outs to Boston and Philadelphia and on tour.

By the middle of the last century, voices of the necessary amplitude and stamina were becoming more difficult to find, and Tristan wasn’t performed at the Met from 1984 until 1999, when tenor Ben Heppner and soprano Jane Eaglen offered voices up to the task. Dieter Dorn’s semaphoric, color-washed production had 25 performances, some of them excessively eventful, before it was mothballed after 2008.

Isolde (Nina Stemme) watches as Brangäne (Ekaterina Gubanova) mixes love potion.
Isolde (Nina Stemme) watches Brangäne (Ekaterina Gubanova) mix love potion.

Treliński’s new production had its premiere in Baden-Baden last March (reviewed in Classical Voice North America here), with Simon Rattle conducting a cast that included Stuart Skelton in his role debut as Tristan. The dark, intricate staging has a modern military setting that contrasts with elements of nature symbolizing unstoppable love. A scrim veils the stage throughout, and during each of the three preludes a video is projected, emerging from a dynamic radar screen to set the tone for each act (sets by Boris Kudlička, lighting by Marc Heinz, video by Bartek Macias).

During the Act I prelude, a warship plows through turbulent seas, and the curtain rises on a multi-level cutaway of a ship, with different decks representing multiple planes of existence: On an upper deck, Tristan pensively flicks a cigarette lighter and dreams of the woman – Isolde, shown in video above him – who nursed him back to health; in the middle of the stage the princess Isolde enjoys a spacious stateroom, with a window on turbulent waters, for her transport as a trophy bride to King Marke of Cornwall. Below deck, visible only for a few minutes, we watch a flashback to Tristan’s brutal execution of Morold, Isolde’s betrothed. When Brangäne tries to deliver a message to Tristan, crew members grope her. At the act’s end, three men signal with semaphores the helicopter arrival of the King. These details were meant to expand the story but seemed primarily gimmicky.

Tristan (Stuart Skelton) and Isolde (Nina Stemme) fall in love.
Tristan (Stuart Skelton) and Isolde (Nina Stemme) fall in love.

The remaining two acts are more subtle but also more distracting. The image of a solar eclipse introduces Act II’s theme of day and night, and the beautiful starry sky and aurora borealis projected during the love duet mute the oddly mundane setting of an air traffic control tower.

The lovers move downstairs to a supply storeroom, where Marke and his men burst in on them; at act’s end, in a bit of dramaturgical revisionism, Tristan stabs himself in remorse. Act III reintroduces images of nature, childhood, and flame seen fleetingly in the first act’s opening video. Onstage, Tristan lies in a hospital bed; when he gets up for his monologue, the stage darkens and transforms. Tristan wanders through a ruined cabin that has appeared onstage and deliriously remembers his childhood, while a child version of Tristan, who silently appears throughout the act dressed in the too-large jacket of King Marke, pours gasoline and sets the cabin on (video) fire.

The stage again darkens and reverts to the hospital room. When Tristan collapses in Isolde’s arms, she slits her wrists – textually logical, but simply odd. The second ship’s arrival, indicated with flashlights behind the upstage scrim while characters sing and shout, had the merit of maintaining focus on Tristan and Isolde. The ending has no special impact, though with Isolde’s luminous “Liebestod” that hardly mattered.

King Marke (René Pape, left) with Tristan (Stuart Skelton).
King Marke (René Pape, left) with Tristan (Stuart Skelton).

Treliński’s deconstruction of textual details, particularly in the long monologues, brought my attention to things I had never noticed before. But at times the excessive visual embellishment and literal insertion of back story distracted from the music. Tristan is primarily about a state of mind, and the relentless visual narrative felt more intellectual than emotional, sometimes at the expense of the music’s power.

Back in 1937, critic Denoe Leedy wrote in the Cleveland Press: “So little happens on the stage in a Wagner opera that it doesn’t matter much what scenic investiture is contributed as part of the production. The music’s the thing – and last night it came to life in a very thrilling manner.” The music was indeed the thing in the hands of Simon Rattle, conducting only his second opera at the Met. His deliberate pacing gave the music room to grow, and he harnessed the power of silence as well as the formidable range of the Met orchestra. Details were clearly in concert with the director’s concepts, enhancing the drama, and orchestral solo passages were unusually eloquent.

Nina Stemme created a complex and volatile Isolde.
Nina Stemme created a complex and volatile Isolde.

One of the evening’s biggest draws was the Isolde of Nina Stemme, who joins a long line of Scandinavian sopranos in the role. Missing from Met Wagner casts since her 2000 debut as Senta, she is one of the most satisfying Isoldes I’ve ever seen and heard anywhere. While her voice doesn’t pin you to your seat, it’s lush, focused, and untiring. Low-lying sections have thrust, and the upper register is generous and secure. Her acting has cinematic detail, and she created a complex and volatile Irish princess.

Stuart Skelton, singing Tristan for only the third run in his career, is a real find. His burnished tenor has both ping and depth, and he has the physical presence to portray a soldier and lover of power and complexity. A bit of stiffness crept into his high notes during the punishing final-act monologue, but he maintained vocal quality and control till the end. I look forward to hearing him again later in the run, when he’s not debuting a major role in one of the world’s biggest houses.

René Pape sang King Marke, his second time opening a new Met Tristan. His luxurious bass and creamy legato conveyed the betrayed king’s wounded dignity, though to my ears the voice seemed somewhat diminished. As Kurwenal, Evgeny Nikitin sounded bright and mellow and was persuasive both as swaggering sailor and Tristan’s trusted friend. Ekaterina Gubanova was a vocally sumptuous, youthful, and dynamic Brangäne. There were no weak links among the smaller roles, performed by Neal Cooper (Melot), Tony Stevenson (Sailor), Alex Richardson (Shepherd), and David Crawford (Steersman).

Tristan und Isolde has seven more performances through October 27. Order tickets here.

The Oct. 8 matinee performance will be transmitted in HD to movie theaters worldwide. Information here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!

On the bridge of the warship in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of 'Tristan und Isolde.'
On the bridge of the warship in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of ‘Tristan und Isolde.’

Comments are closed.