Composer/Librettist: Richard Wagner
Conductor: Asher Fisch
Producer/Director: Mariusz Treliński
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Tristan: Stuart Skelton
Brangäne: Ekaterina Gubanova
King Marke: René Pape
Kurwenal: Evgeny Nikitin
After thoroughly enjoying the prized intimacy of small theaters for a few operas in Berlin and New York, I was back in the cavernous Met for their controversial new production of Tristan und Isolde on Monday evening, three weeks after I had to exchange my original ticket for one for a later performance, which I would attend fortunately without the slightest hint of coughing, but unfortunately without the slightest hint of Simon Rattle either as by then he would have passed the baton on to Asher Fisch.
The extra time had also given me an opportunity to feel the buzz around it and from what I could tell, the generally consensus, from conservative audience members like my own mother and a random audience member over-heard at Jane Eyre to typically more open-minded professional critics, could be summed up by “terrific singing and crappy production”, which, all things considered, still beat the alternative in my book.
So on Monday evening, I left work early to safely make it for the 6:30 PM starting time, scarfed down a sandwich with many of my fellow opera-goers on the Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza, enjoyed a bit of the crisp evening air on the terrace, walked my way up to the packed Family Circle, silently commanding the dedication of the horde of standing room opera buffs confined at the very top of the section, and buckled up for the next five hours.
If on Saturday I had enjoyed a big romantic love story in a traditional setting with Jane Eyre, on Monday I was definitely in for a doggedly modern take on another big romantic love story with Mariusz Treliński’s Tristan und Isolde. Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course, as long as the transposition works. But since Wagner’s glorious score, the appealing cast of celebrated singers and the Met’s endlessly versatile orchestra had by all accounts been managing the musical portion of the equation just fine, I sat down fairly confident in my time and money investment.
This season’s Met campaign features black-and-white portraits of the company’s biggest stars and the commanding tagline “The voice must be heard”. And sure enough, on Monday evening, formidable German Wagnerian soprano Nina Stemme’s absurdly powerful voice magnificently soared above all with impeccable articulation, penetrative expressiveness and unwavering focus, frequently making me even forget the mess of a production she was stuck in, which was no small feat. Her Isolde was dignified, passionate and knowingly moving toward inexorable tragedy. The voice was heard indeed, and it was an extraordinary experience all the way to a transcendental "Liebestod". A scholarly-sounding young man exiting behind me confided to his companion that he had found her singing “absolutely flawless from beginning to end, the only problem being to find her a Tristan to match”.
While I totally agree with the first part of this statement, I am ambivalent about the second part as I had found Australian tenor Stuart Skelton more than adequate as Tristan. He had the right voice, rich, supple and ardent, the ability to take Wagner’s complex lines and make them his very own, and the dramatic skills to convey the very human emotions he was wrestling with and the dire situation he unwittingly found himself in. His totally engaging portrayal made his extended delirious scene at the beginning of Act 3 incredible moving as he was facing nothing but death and despair.
The rest of the cast offered plenty of memorable singing too, starting with American bass René Pape, a certified Met favorite, who added yet one more title to his ever-growing list of unquestionable triumphs. Although he can been seen as the trouble-maker in Tristan und Isolde’s doomed love story, King Marke is also a man who will turn out to be rational and understanding, and René Pape confidently brought out all aspects of the character with his commanding presence and superb singing. His first dazzling appearance as he walked in on the guilty lovers in a resplendent white suit immediately made him the center of the attention, which he held naturally and effortlessly for the rest of the evening.
Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova gave an equally riveting performance as Brangäne, making the most of her role as Isolde’s fiercely loyal lady-in-waiting, who nevertheless was not afraid to speak her mind. Her singing was attractively lyrical, sharp and assured, and the intense scenes she had with Isolde strongly emphasized the unbreakable bond between the two women.
Beside the four outstanding leads, the rest of the cast, including Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin who did the most of his substantial scene with Tristan as his faithful friend Kurwenal in Act III, earned my bottomless admiration too. There was truly not a single weak link of the entire group of singers.
Another priceless contributor to the musical success of the endeavor was the glorious Met orchestra, which after four presumably intense weeks with Simon Rattle put their training to good use as Asher Fisch took over the challenging conducting duties. The pace was unhurried but steady, leaving plenty of room for the big romantic waves to swell while myriad colors and tricky textures received all the meticulous attention they deserved. It was a long and difficult assignment even for such a seasoned ensemble, and the mission was smashingly accomplished.
When it came to the staging, unlike many protesters, I did not actually object to the generally reviled overall darkness of it ─ Tristan und Isolde is a tragedy, after all ─ and in fact thought that the hint of German expressionism and noirish atmosphere at the beginning of Act II, for example, should have been fully explored instead of being just one half-baked idea among other unconvincing ones such as modern warfare, electronic gadgets and scene splintering. By the way, speaking of Act II, I still can’t figure out why the two lovers, while singing gorgeously, barely looked at each other even though their irrepressible passion was clearly heating up.
The original opera takes place in the Middle Ages, and while moving it to another social and historical context is not a bad proposal in itself –passion and death being quintessentially timeless themes – it is still highly preferable that the end result have a clear purpose and make sense. Poor, confusing stage directions on top of grim industrial-looking sets, too many stark videos and a few borderline cheesy, often questionable, arbitrary add-ons, such as the little boy checking on the dying Tristan or Isolde slitting her wrist in Act III (?!), made this whole enterprise too hard to like and very easy to reject. And after a few hours of it, I too could make the informed decision to join the general chorus and say: "Thank goodness for the music!"