Tristan und Isolde

Date: October 13, 2016
Location: Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Tristan: Stuart Skelton
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Sailor’s Voice: Tony Stevenson
Brangäne: Ekaterina Gubanova
Kurwenal: Carsten Wittmoser
Melot: Neal Cooper
King Marke: René Pape
Shepherd: Alex Richardson
Steerman: David Crawford

Metropolitan Opera
Simon Rattle, conductor
Mariusz Treliński, production

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s epic tale about love and death, returned to the Met after an eight-year hiatus. The previous production, by Dieter Dorn, was as less well-remembered for its lego-colored background as the dynamic duo who propelled the run: Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen. Mariusz Treliński’s new production, premiered earlier this year in Baden-Baden, could well be remembered as much for its dark staging as the stars who lit it: Stuart Skelton, and Nina Stemme.

Treliński’s set was dark – so poorly lit that from the balcony seats one could barely make out the characters if not for the clarity of their voices. Militaristic costumes drowned in a a set painted with objects of grey and rusting metals. The stone-cold setting was made alive, albeit only marginally, by a screen at the back of the stage. As visual narrator in chief, this screen dabbled between genius and (mostly) clichés. For example, a crosshair radar was projected early on to reveal and enforce the place of action, even though the set was clearly one of a ship’s deck. While Isolde lamented Morold’s death, the screen offered to flash back the murder in utmost physical brutality, as if the grief in her voice alone would not suffice. Act 2’s start was cued by an impressive feat of stagecraft, where the entire stage spun about 180 degrees to reveal a Starship Enterprise-like structure, from which Tristan and Isolde professed love to one another. But the movements were so labored and long that the voice seemed secondary to the theatrical development. These sorts of visual narrative walked the fine line between enhancement and unnecessary distraction, and here, even if the visual cues were not found to be overwhelmingly clichéd, they could at times be distracting to the musical presentation.

Nina Stemme is a convincing Wagnerian heroine not least because of her vocal power, reliability and unbound stamina, but because that power and reliability allow her to focus a great deal of her attention on her theatrical acting, which proves time and again to be immersive and efficacious. Treliński’s staging did not provide a great deal for her to work on, due mainly to its plainness and darkness, but that did not seem to deter her: she clearly relished the opportunity to focus singularly on Tristan. Each twitching of her eye brows and each hypnotic glance towards Tristan seemed to unveil a great deal about the sort of Isolde that she wanted us to believe: as Tristan started to peel away the initial bitterness of Isolde’s lifeless armor, passion would resonate to the core. Vocally, her output flowed naturally like a gentle Alpine stream that sounded fresh, even after four hours and onwards to Liebestod. Her voice beamed with cinematic detail and heartfelt passion. Unlike many of Stemme’s contemporaries who relied on an outrageous, hedonistic build up towards and during Liebestod, to the point where the voice could be too excessively loud but lacking a sense of place and purpose, Stemme submitted something that was sublime, with nourished phrasings, crisp diction and a voice that found peace amidst all the commotion and ultimately the inevitable death. At the musical cue where Isoldes of the past simply died or left the stage, she rested her head gently onto the shoulder of Tristan sitting by her side, as though the pair has found eternal love in a manner where death no longer matters. Here, Treliński’s direction was brilliant and savvy, where he clearly reacted to the metaphysical implication without being excessively directorial.

Stuart Skelton, heard this year as Siegmund in Hong Kong, portrayed a soldier with a deep sense of loyalty and a deeper sense for love. Stemme clearly found protective and warm comfort next to the towering and muscular body of Skelton. Skelton presented a springy, agile voice that nevertheless sounded nursed and delicate. From the beginning, he did not show an inkling of restraint, even inside the Met’s gigantic hollow. That perhaps explained why he sounded tired and slightly hoarse towards the end (the high notes in “Sehnsucht, zu sterben” was audibly overparted), but that was not entirely unexpected of a dutiful Tristan who gave everything from the beginning till the very end.

René Pape presented one of the finest King Markes I have ever witnessed: a dignified character whose charity at the end shaded with paternal kindness. Vocally, Pape was sensitive with his words and phrasings, but, as stentorian a bass as he reliably has been, seemed a bit off in production volume this evening. Ekaterina Gubanova offered a fiery portrayal of Brangäne, and arguably was more spectacular vocally and dramatically than she was in Berlin back in June. Simon Rattle’s reading of the score was not as hypnotic as Karajan’s. Nor was his as dramatically surging as Böhm’s. But what Rattle gifted  us was intimate and delicate. If one cuts any random 10-second snippet from the evening, one would find great balance and perfect legato. Over four hours, Rattle did not seem to offer any particularly personal or definitive ideas. If there was nothing here that could point to a Rattle-ian identity, there must be something genuine and genius, with his modesty in not imposing his own color, and in allowing the singers to shine and Wagner’s music to speak for itself.

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme in Tristan und Isolde, New York. Photo credit: Met Opera.