David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
Review: Met's New 'Tristan und Isolde' Goes Radical
Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - 12:27 PM
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?