Review: Met's New 'Tristan und Isolde' Goes Radical

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - 12:27 PM

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme in the title roles of Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde.' Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme in the title roles of Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde.' (Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

Is the Metropolitan Opera becoming a home to radical theater?

Last season, the William Kentridge production of Lulu matched the opera's limitless complications with a scenic labyrinth of its own, striving to both comment upon and dramatize the opera with a density of imagery that required several viewings. On Monday, Mariusz Trelinski's new production of Tristan und Isolde treated Wagner's legend of monumental, but illicit love, to a provocative flood of imagery that went in, out and all around the massive opera in ways that were stark and extravagant, mesmerizing and alienating, sensible and senseless, realistic and surreal. And as with all radical theater, not all of it is going to be appreciated or successful. But unlike much director-dominated productions that can insure an opera's success when great singers, orchestra players and conductors aren't at hand, this one relies on musicians as magnetic as leading soprano Nina Stemme and conductor Simon Rattle to glue it all together and tell us how important it all is.

Shadowy, chilly and industrial, the updated production had each act beginning with a sonar screen projected onto a scrim that also offered a periscope-like view of a modern ship making its way through engulfing storm waves. Behind the scrim, designer Boris Kudlicka had the stage divided into modular compartments allowing the opera to move quickly from one setting to another. Inside the ship, 1940-ish navy uniforms established hierarchies of authority among the characters. Isolde (having been abducted to marry King Marke) behaved none too regally. Wagner created volatile, real-people emotions under the purposely antiquated surface, and like some denizen from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, Isolde threw things and wrestled her servant Brangane into submission. Furniture was overturned, guns were pulled. Expressionistic lighting suggested black-and-white film noir. Singers were sometimes reduced to silhouettes and sometimes disappeared completely amid scene-splintering effects that made intuitive but not literal sense. 

Example: The famous Act II love duet (which, by the way, was somewhat cut) took place in the stark setting of the ship's engine room, though as the music grew more ecstatic, a scrim came down showing a sun in a state of eclipse. The effect was disconcerting for a second, but soon became so hypnotic you realize how much the staging was attuned to music. Even when the staging seemed to go against the grain of the score, it did so in ways that highlighted the music's meaning. Other visual leitmotifs included an upside-down ocean that seemed to be flowing on the ceiling and a boy representing the young, orphaned Tristan.  

So this was not your typical glittering, socialite-oriented Met opening. Some might even call it dreary, with this dark production inside and minimal red-carpet trappings outside (though, there were plenty of celebrity guests including Blythe Danner, Patricia Clarkson, Patti Smith, Candice Bergen and Placido Domingo). But as someone who finds gala elements to be distracting, this one had the right priorities. Rather than starting the season with a fluffy opera buffa, this Tristan was a genuine artistic event, the anticipation of which has been a conversation starter around New York, even outside typical opera circles. A sound-only YouTube performance floated earlier this year from Festival Hall Baden Baden (a co-producer) showed that Rattle was not about to deliver sonically luxurious Wagner a la Herbert von Karajan, who was about exterior beauty and aesthetic unity. 

On Monday, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra gave Rattle a much warmer sonority than the Berlin Philharmonic in Baden Baden as he built the long arcs of music with skill and great comprehension. Rattle was eager to show you the dissonant note in a Wagnerian chord, and ambushed listeners with unusually arresting moments, chosen with dramaturgical wisdom. Of course, anytime a character utters a curse, Rattle reminded you that no matter how typical the characters looked in this production, these are creatures of extraordinary, world-changing power. Most formidable was the fateful Act I meeting of the two title characters when they accidentally drink the love potion that sends them to their ruin. Rattle's treatment of the opening moments of the scene was heart-stopping. 

Much has been made of Stemme, now in her early 50s, finally bringing her Isolde to New York. Though I've long appreciated Stemme's dark, mezzo-ish voice with its bright but sometimes unwieldy upper range, I've never been an out-and-out admirer until now. Having heard her two recordings of the opera, she equaled or surpassed both of them on Monday with conviction, dramatic specificity, eloquent use of color and physical credibility in this long role. The voice grew a bit leathery by the end, but fatigue is to be expected.Though hardly cutting a heroic figure on stage, tenor Stuart Skelton was a vocally able Tristan (which is no small thing), though you could wish for a brighter upper range. As Brangane, Ekaterina Gubanov was an even match for Stemme's stentorian Isolde. Rene Pape was his typically peerless self with his vocally clean, but dramatically powerful King Marke portrayal, pacing the stage in rumination during his great Act II soliloquy. 

While it's great to see such talent put at the service of a production as daring as this, you had to leave with a sinking feeling that, however stimulating, Trelinski's vision of Tristan will have, at most, a momentary vogue. Is it too much to want a Tristan production that promises to speak to the next generation as well as our own?

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Comments [20]

Magdalena Thurin

I agree with most of the commens regarding the contast of the musical and the visual sides of performance. Singers, especially Nina Stemme, Rene Pape and Ekaterina Gubanowa were superb. Orchestra and the conductor were extraordinary. The visual monstrosity, as already mentioned, was utmost disturbing. Dark and gloomy staging and costumes except fot the king Marka uniform were truly ugly. It was difficult to folow ny movement at the scene as most of the time was completely black with occasional flashlights. It was rather dissapointing although musically unforgatble performance.

Oct. 13 2016 09:50 PM
AmyANSKY from NYC/NJ

Husband & I were thrilled by this production via HD in our neighborhood movieplex (2 tix = @ 58.64). For me, it IS all about the music so I loved the experience. The video/staging elements actually seemed to augment the aural impact. I felt the un-"heroic-looking" Tristan & unkempt-appearing Isolde reinforced the compulsory nature of their affection. Doubtless my opinion may be diminished by my lack of authority (under 50 years old, this was my first "live" Wagner, I didn't put more money where my mouth is) but husband & I know good drama when we see it. 2 thumbs up !

Oct. 10 2016 02:38 PM
JA from San Jose

I am a fan of Tristan und Isolde but I won't be encouraging anyone who missed the Live at the Met performance yesterday to see the encore. The orchestra was wonderful, most of the singers were very good, but the staging was horrible. I found it so distracting I often shut my eyes. I thought it was interesting that Deborah Voigt didn't interview anyone about the "production". Is it too much to hope that the Met realizes it did nothing to add to the beauty of the opera. My husband and I thought the "love scene" was the most unromantic we had ever seen. The singers hardly ever looked at each other,or touched each other, and certainly did not look like they were "in love."

I am really disappointed and glad I only spent $22 a ticket at the movie theater rather than a couple hundred or more to see it in person. Coming to the Met when I visit New York is always at the top of my list but obviously, I will have to very carefully time my visits around future productions, as I simply will not go to see unnecessarily updated, i.e. change of centuries, operas to satisfy some notion that that is what the public wants.

Oct. 09 2016 12:23 PM
marie stuart from Philadelphia

Yes ,it is called "grand opera"......audiences should be gently reminded however that is all about the music ,the singers,the conductor and the orchestra.......visual affects vary with the times such that to focus on this aspect of a production as its keystone is doing opera and the opera goer an injustice.....i heard some of the most profound music ( i do not count myself as a Wagner devotee) sung by a capable cast of singers with Stemme and Pape outstanding and Rattle making this production one of the most memorable of any i have attended since the 1970s when i heard my first opera with Vickers and von Karajan in Othello ...... thank you MET for taking us out of our so called "comfort Zone" with this brilliant and for the most part superlative production .

Oct. 09 2016 11:41 AM
Gregor from Massachusetts

Just saw the HD broadcast. I didn't think I'd like the updating of the plot but it actually worked fairly well. But what bothered me about the production and others of this ilk was a seeming philosophical thread that the Arts follow Society. By this I mean the gratuitous gun violence- was the video of Morold being shot really necessary? In a production of Othello from Spain we see Desdemona strangled in real time. The ancient Greeks believed that such depictions of violence inflicted upon humans should happen off stage- ob scena- the origin of our word 'obscene'. The Arts, ennobling of the human condition, should lead society by its virtues and not be a mirror to its baseness.

Oct. 09 2016 08:21 AM
Cornelia Brown from Utica NY

Bravo! Beautiful contrast between the doomed, self-enclosed love of the romantic couple and the iron-firm love of the servants for their 'masters,' children for their parents -- and the concluding and real heart-breaker for me, the love of a father (King Marke) for his would-be son Tristan. Wonderful slow winding out of a story that felt as deep as the backdrop of surging waves.

Oct. 08 2016 10:26 PM
elke johnson


I will see and hear the opera via Live in HD on Saturday. I am very disturbed by all the negative comments I read. While I agree that it is much easier on the eyes to continue seeing operas in their traditional setting, I am quite ready to experience some Euro Trash ideas, after all it is the music I come to enjoy.
E.J.

Oct. 06 2016 06:05 PM
Brunnhilde from NYC

Hey, Kudlicka, in case you didn't know it, Tristan und Isolda is a love story. Hey, Gulp(!)woops, Gelb, in case you didn't know it, Tristan und Isolda is a love story. Hey boys, in case you both didn't know it, it is one of the oldest and most beautiful of love stories. Boys....the music matches the story.....but not your production. Shame! Creative? Nope. Interesting? Nope. Disgusting? Yup!

Oct. 06 2016 12:56 PM
CastaDiva from New York, NY

What a gulf of difference between the visual and aural in the Met’s current T&I! Wonderful cast, with a dominating Stemme as Isolde, who sang with power, expression and beauty of tone throughout the long evening. The supporting characters were well sung too, esp. Nikitin as Kurnewal, Gubanova as Brangane, and Pape as King Marke, a role he had sung at the Met in 1999. I cannot share the critics' enthusiasm over Skelton, however. He was a serviceable Tristan, but he sounded underpowered at times, esp. in his duets and exchanges with Stemme. A true heldentenor he was not, as, say, was Heppner, whom I heard in the 1999 production.

The orchestra, which always sounds even better when it is performing Wagner, sounded gorgeous.

Now for the visual---this production is, frankly, ugly. Drab and dreary, the sets consisted mainly of flights of stairs which were supposed to be those of the warship in which Isolde was being taken to Cornwall, but which looked like an industrial depot. Isolde, a princess, was dressed in Act I like a tramp.Computer generated images instead of sets were presented to the audience during the beautiful love duet in Act II, then we were back to the grim gray stairs. Why was this most melodious, mood inspiring of the Wagner operas subjected to this visual monstrosity? I found myself averting my eyes and watching the orchestra instead.

Why does the Met bring us these dreadful productions? It is constantly bemoaning the fact that it is losing its audience.Perhaps if the Met gave us attractive productions in keeping with the operas’ music and librettos, it might see less of a slippage in its audience. But it seems to prefer to indulge directors in their peculiar conceits.

Oct. 05 2016 08:11 PM
Floria from NYC

I weep! Gelb is destroying the Met. These euro-trash, productions coming from rather perverted directors' "new" concepts are disgusting. Gelb obviously has no great love of opera....and hires others who share his view. He's a Broadway Show and record producer. Is he reaching out to a new generation of opera lovers?????? Ha! What's wrong with the current generation? The new generation that he seeks...are they buying the subscriptions? We do. Do they chose going to an expensive opera over "hanging" with friends over wine and cheese or at the corner bar? We did. Do they "get" what opera is? The generation - my generation - that buys the subscriptions know what opera is. And you know what? We were once that new generation....but we had a Met that created great productions for great music, and we knew it.

Oct. 05 2016 11:44 AM
arden broecking from Connecticut

When is this nonsense going to stop?
Just looking at the photographs of the new production of "Tristan"made me gag! One of my musician friends was invited to the dress rehearsal,and only lasted one act, despite the fine musical aspects and singing. These smart-aleck "directors" seem to think they know better than the composer! Maybe one day, the fine singers and musicians who are wasted in these ridiculous "productions" will rebel and refuse to be part of them!!!!!! What could be needed is a change of management!!!!!
Enough!

Oct. 03 2016 07:42 AM
Rosanna from NYC

CoolObserver cites today's "dumbing-down" tendency in opera. I was very disappointed to see that occur in last season's revival of "Tannhauser" at the Met. In Act III someone thought it necessary to carry Elizabeth's bier to the front of the stage and align it with Tannhauser's! The original version of this 1970s production had Tannhauser collapsing at the sight of her funeral procession crossing the stage in the background, far more powerful a presentation.

Sep. 29 2016 08:21 PM
CoolObserver from Manhattan

Already I truly dread going and am sorry I kept this on my subscription. Why are we subjected to these monstrosities??? Why is Peter Gelb still in charge of aesthetics when he has demonstrated over and over that he is totally lacking in an operatic vision that offers authenticity, drama and spectacle in keeping with the era, the composer's vision and some sense of tradition in presentation? He should be insisting that design and direction SERVE to elucidate and present the opera, not to mangle, twist and substitute some would-be headline grabber who is more interested in his own ideas than the composer's and the librettist's? (Or the audience's comprehension.) These charlatans and ego maniacs being foisted on us --at huge expense -- to interfere and even pervert sometimes sublime works of art. And nothing, believe me, nothing brings down the highest achievements of the excellent musicians and singers as some distracting, confusing, dark, wrongheaded, over sexualized production. A beautiful woman can easily be made to look totally laughable and even ugly by a ridiculous dress. Twice now, I have met people on the bus to Lincoln center who had subscriptions, one for 44 years and the other for some 60 years (she had her seat since the Old Met!)-- No More. They can't stand the Euro-trash, ugly garbage and insulting arrogance being forced on us. No wonder seats were still available for the opening, and are regularly steeply discounted. This is not bringing in a younger audience, it is dumbing down opera and playing to the lowest common denominator. Younger people often think it is all a bad and quite expensive joke, not an uplifting and magical experience! Let Gelb glorify in his HD success, but get him out of the aesthetic decision making. I, for one, do not go to the opera to see people singing in subway clothes, groping each other and, of course, toss in a few Nazis as bad guys. If things don't get better fast, this too is my last year. There are other places to go for great and better presented opera, and most of them are a lot cheaper!

Sep. 29 2016 05:48 PM
JM from Florida

I am so bored by the pervasive contemporary mandate that in order to "speak to our generation," opera must be presented in a way other than how it was composed. Countless designer/directors out there have the same idea: set in a filthy abandoned warehouse, characters wearing drab gray rags, throw in the projections = ART!
Isolde slashes her wrists. What's next, Calixto Bieito at the Met? (Then we would get real blood ... )
For the opera that I loved, I mourn.

Sep. 29 2016 02:53 PM
Robin Taylor Roth from Piscataway, NJ

We attended the Opening Night performance. As with any new production, one anxiously anticipates what the designers & director have chosen to do. Will it be a delight or a disgrace?

In general, we liked this production - a vast improvement over its immediate predecessor at the Met.

The Met has been making judicious use of video in several recent productions, and this "Tristan" was no exception. The waves, forest, and sonar trace all worked well to add atmosphere, without distracting from the opera.

For the most part, the sets worked, too. We were not thrilled by the Act II love scene's being set in the warehouse-like hold of the ship.

One annoying bit of stage business occurred in Act III: evidently unable to imagine anyone's dying of love, the director had Isolde slash her wrists! (Yes, really!) But no-one who came onstage afterward noticed that she was bleeding to death. In fact, there was no blood at all. So, the action was an unnecessary and silly addition to the opera.

Excellent performers! Stemme and Pape were superb; Skelton and Gubanov quite acceptable. It seemed that Sir Simon Rattle took an even slower, more attenuated pace than Jimmy Levine has done!

Sep. 29 2016 11:56 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Fraud! As usual with the once-great Met, a performance worth listening to, but not looking at.

Sep. 29 2016 07:47 AM
Michelle Kamhi from New York City

Will such a production "speak to the next generation as well as our own?" Does it even speak to our own? I doubt it. Directorial travesties like this are what made me cancel my subscription to the Met a couple of years ago. I thank my lucky stars that I managed to see the incomparable Otto Schenk production of the Ring Cycle before it was lamentably scrapped in favor of absurdly shifting slats.

Sep. 28 2016 11:45 PM
Charles Fischbein from SFront Royal, Va

I went up to see the opening from my home in Virginia. Will be spending a full four days at the Met. All I can say is more of the Gelb era Euro Trash productions. No wonder Met ticket sales are dropping, although most of the performances of Tristan are well sold.

Sep. 28 2016 08:21 PM
Nick from Tampa

Another intent to "improve" Wagner! It assumes people are so bored with traditional staging, something "new" must be offered! While Tristan may be boring to some audience,taking the attention away from the singers with radical staging is no "solution".

Sep. 28 2016 09:49 AM
Matthew Gurewitsch from Kihei (Maui), Hawaii

Thanks for an evocative notice that factors in the realities of contemporary opera production, judiciously addressing the pros and cons.

Sep. 27 2016 07:25 PM

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