Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (Simon Rattle cond. Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, the Metropolitan Opera).
I come to write this with a heavy heart. I am more or less resigned to the idea that I am not likely to hear a better Tristan, from the pit or the stage, than that which I heard at the Met last week. The production was stimulating and took a distinctive approach in exploring some of the darkest elements of the text, yet was not perfect; the musical standards, however, were.
The quality of an orchestra’s Tristan can usually be judged by the first act. The second act boils down to the chemistry between the pair of lovers, and the third on just how good Isolde is. On opening night (26th September) Sir Simon Rattle produced some unutterably astonishing sounds from the pit. The intensity of the dramatic opening was awe-inspiring. It was apparent from but a few bars in that this was to be special, given the bankable nature of the cast too, something historic was in store. The other moment when I was particularly struck by the quality of conducting was the final few bars of the third Act. The control was absolute and the music utterly mesmerizing.
The singing on offer was exceptional. Each voice fitted its part so well. Undoubtedly Nina Stemme is the greatest living Isolde , and after hearing Skelton in English I suspected he was well on his way to a similar accolade; this performance cemented that view in my mind. In Act II, Skelton did at times seem fractionally strained but this was fleeting and slight. Nobody can do the liebestod like Stemme, but what struck me was that this felt much more deeply rehearsed dramatically and musically than the ROH production in 2014 (review); Stemme’s acting was more refined as a result. The chemistry between the pair of doomed lovers was outstanding and convincing. With this in mind, it is inexplicable that Isolde slit her wrists. The whole point is that she cannot bear to exist sans Tristan, and that she simply expires as a product of the intensity of her love. This was an example of directors scared to leave the music to do the talking. And it is regrettable: there were a few fillips and liberties which detracted from a musically superb and vocally immaculate production. The dramatic intensity of the production as weakened only by the staging, and not music.
Ekatarian Gubanova was a revelation as Brangäne. In particular her off-stage warnings in Act II gave serious goose-bumps whilst maintaining perfect verbal clarity, something rarely achieved. Indeed when done well, Brangäne is the voice of fate, that warning of doom (an idea Wagner explored in Erda at the end of the Rheingold too). Her guilt over the devastating denouement of her potion substitution was palpable.
King Marke was sung by René Pape. His effortless bass is like no other; it is low, clear languid, and pure, without even a hint of vibrato. He wowed the audience with these tones as cool as the waters of the North Sea. Yet this Marke was also compassionate and human. Kurwenal (Evegeny Nikitin) was a superb, true companion. Melot (Neal Cooper) made the role complex.
The production by Mariusz Treliński was set on a modern war ship. During the overture a projection showed a circular radar – almost like an ECG. This worked well. A modern warship with different rooms through a sectional view of the ship (almost like the eyewitness guide version) held the action. A grim stateroom in monochromatic colours and a surgical kitchenette off which potions could be prepared. This allowed the malice in the score to be drawn out effectively. In Act II it was on the bridge of this ship, initially with sea raging. This calmed, and the aurora borealis shone for the liebesnacht. The lovers were then discovered in the depths of the ship, in some hideous freight room holding radioactive material or some other deadly cargo. Death potions, we might even say.
Some gimmicks were, however tedious, and actually undermined a forceful interpretation of Wagner’s greatest opera. It was not just Isolde cutting herself. She returned at the end of Act II. Young Tristan follows Tristan around. A shed (or is it a shipwreck?) is mentally summoned by Tristan as he waits for Isolde in Act III, and is then immolated. Why? What did this really mean? This all detracted from the intense love story written so masterfully in to the fabric of the music. But unlike the ENO production this summer (review), the physical exertions to keep up with fundamental misconceptions of the love story by the director did not prevent the singers from making the right noises. The sort of unforgettable music making which Wagner’s great love story behoves of its singers.
In cinemas live today and encores this week.
In rep until October 27.
Conductor Sir Simon Rattle
A sailor’s voice Tony Stevenson
Isolde Nina Stemme
Brangäne Ekaterina Gubanova
Kurwenal Evgeny Nikitin
Tristan Stuart Skelton
Melot Neal Cooper
King Marke René Pape
A Shepherd Alex Richardson
A Steersman David Crawford
Young Tristan Jonathan O’Reilly
Production Mariusz Trelinski
Set Designer Boris Kudlicka
Costume Designer Marek Adamski
Lighting Designer Marc Heinz
Projection Designer Bartek Macias
Choreographer Tomasz Wygoda
Dramaturg Piotr Gruszczynski
Dramaturg Adam Radecki