The Met’s third Tristan in 40 years

The Met’s Superbly Sung, Strangely Staged, Tristan

The Met Opera opened its season with a new production of Tristan und Isolde Sein Vater, using Wagner’s score (if not his story) in a sumptuously, even thrillingly rendered performance.

Simon Rattle was true to his name and shook both the score and the audience of preconceptions.  It felt a bit long and all the more delicious for that.  Nina Stemme, whom I first heard as Isolde in Bayreuth in 2006 and then again in Glyndebourne in 2007, continued to reveal musical and character insights, delight after delight.  I’d seen Stuart Skelton’s Tristan in June of this year and was even more impressed by his capacities; the logic and unforced nature of his interpretation has been equaled in my experience only by Stephen Gould’s concert recording.

René Pape’s Marke is a triumph that continues to reward.  At the dress rehearsal I saw Evgeny Nikitin as Kurwenal, and in performance Carsten Wittmoser; both were fine as was Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne.  Really, a wonderful evening on the music side.

On the production end, not so much.

Tristan piloting a military ship through stormy seas is fine as far as it goes, except that it went a bit too far – Boris Kudlička’s Act I set provided for cinematic shifts in locale from Isolde’s rooms (where Tristan was discovered in the opening moment, watching Isolde sleep) to the instrument-laden control room (where Tristan again monitored Isolde on hidden cameras, adding a yet more pervy note to their relationship) to stairways where musclebound sailors intimidated the passengers, to some sort of vastly-proportioned office (where, it would seem, Tristan had shot a bound and helpless Morold in the temple).

Punctuating this Act were films of a guy in dress whites and a kid, each of whom from time to time handled a pistol and a Ronson cigarette lighter.  So did Tristan, in an oddly dispassionate way, like Captain Queeg’s marbles.  I drew the vague impression that Dress Whites was Tristan’s Dad and that the Kid was Tristan.  A fire was involved.  Maybe a suicide was involved.  Not sure.

Act II had only two places on the ship – though why the action was set on the ship in light of the fact that they had already noisily docked, I didn’t get.  Dress Whites made a reappearance and Isolde made a disappearance upon Marke’s entrance, then showed up over on the downstage left corner to counsel Tristan at the very end, only to abruptly disappear again.  So maybe Isolde is a figment of Tristan’s mind, like an imaginary friend?

I completely lost track of things in Act III.  Tristan was in a hospital bed except when he was not.  The Kid walked around flicking a Ronson lighter.  Dress Whites seemed to disapprove of Tristan’s… something, again not sure.  The passage between Tristan’s death and Marke’s entrance was not staged; it was sung from the wings.  The Kid poured something (water? gasoline?) onto the table of a burned-out home.  (Did he get killed in the fire?  Is this Isolde’s dream, not Tristan’s?)  Brangäne sought to counsel an absent Isolde while simultaneously going quickly out a hospital door.  Tristan died, then stood up and walked away, then showed up on a bench in that same downstage left corner so Isolde could sit next to him to sing the closing hallucination.

I loathe people making fun of stagings that creative artists have worked on for years, and I’m not mocking this.  I’m just reporting that I couldn’t follow the story, especially in light of the words being sung.  In Act III Tristan does refer to the time when he learned how his father died, and how he remembered the “alte weise” playing.  If that’s so, then does it make sense that the Kid (if he was Tristan) knew his father (if that was who Dress White was) killed himself with a revolver (if he did) or by immolating himself with a Ronson lighter (if that’s what happened) and Tristan didn’t know about it but learned about it only later when the English horn was playing?   And the pervy cameras, and the disappearing lovers, and so on and so on.  I just was at a loss.

When I left the dress rehearsal I overheard a guest saying “The performances are great; but they screwed it up again.”  That seems cruel.  But I do think that a director takes a risk staging a story about someone – here, two people — who do not appear in the script.  And I look back and realize that this is the third Met production of Tristan since my first Met Tristan in 1981, and none of the three stagings held a candle (or a Ronson?) to the music.

2 Comments

  • I have not seen this production but from the report can be concluded, that the staging must be utterly crazy. Staging opera is not about new ideas injecting into the work to keep the audience awake, but revealing what is in the work as best as one’s imaginatio allows, so that what happens with and in the protagonists comes across clearly and in character with the work and especially, with the music.

    Adding a modern sauce over an old work is always wrong, since the music is the heart of the art form, and it has its own aroma, which does not harmonize with conflicting elements. It is like building a modernist glass-and-steel tower block in the midst of a historic city.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with John Borslap’comments. It ca be said louder, but not more clear!

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