Richard Wagner

Totestod – A Bleak Tristan and Isolde at The Met

Photo Credit: Gregory Briggler ©2016

I am not a fan of Wagner in general. Well, a fan of his orchestral writing, but not the rest. Who can tell if the singers are making up the never ending vocal lines as they go along? The storylines are often silly or become so. I never felt like he managed to “do it all” successfully. I feel the same about Tristan and Isolde specifically. The music is often precise and pulsating, but the story detail, the character development, is what kills the momentum especially in the first act. The first act is a prolonged lover’s quarrel on a ship after the kidnapping of Isolde. I fell asleep around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!” and woke up around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!”. That’s right, I dozed during the dress rehearsal I attended. Wagner writes the perfect napping operas.

The new production at the Metropolitan Opera, captained by Mariusz Trelinski, was licensed from the Polish National Opera give or take. Gird your loins for six hours of visual abuse. It is primarily bleak – brutal even – in true modern European style.The musical work is made secondary to the ideas of the directorial auteur. The stage is black and white each act. The only relief from that is a whisper, a breath of blue and green occasionally. Be prepared for the stunningly subdued “pop” of color when Isolde reveals her dark maroon velvet dress during the second act. The black and white aesthetic is made more intense by the bullying of the stage lights. The default light is a bare white. Upstage, there is a row of Klieg lights that are used like cannons to wake up or ambush the audience. Also, the director always needed to have “something” happening during the overture and prelude to the second act. The circle of a working sonar screen (green, of course) was projected onto the curtain for the duration as well as a film. The director was very fond of circles, they play a major role in the symbolism of the staging. At one point in the second or third act, another circle was projected onto the haze that constantly smogged the stage to great effect.

Not everything was an assault. Sometimes the stagecraft was amazing!  The most impressive stagecraft was the appearance and disappearance of characters while onstage. I was honestly surprised over and again by this device. The sets confined and defined the acts in a purposeful way. In the first act, the result often was to give the stage the feeling of a film which seems to make sense for Trelinski who began his career as a film director. The set for the second act was inexplicably “boaty”, though no less impressive. Over the course of the production, the staging opened up so that by the third act there was plenty of space for nihilism.

There was a choice by the director to exaggerate the importance of the fact that Tristan as a child lost his father to the sea. One line late in the opera was used to justify  a lot of psychological speculation. This idea was used in a film projected during the overture inside the sonar ring. Is this the story of a forbidden, tragic love of two young lovers? No! It’s the sea swallowing up lives. The production was so brutal and acerbic, the Liebestod comes across more as a Totestod.

The famous Liebestod, the culmination of operatic longing, the most famous melody from this sing-a-thon, and the point of the opera, is the end point of an arguably silly idea. But, it has its place and purpose as the logical conclusion of the action. How is the intractable problem of hatred turning to love ripening to despair solved? Life apart is resolved by death together. A powerful, ridiculous idea akin to the juvenile logic of Romeo and Juliet – both romantic and wrong. Or is it romantic because it is wrong? The story itself hints at the mindless origins of this poisonous thinking with a switch of love for hate by Isolde’s handmaiden early in the action. The faulty Liebestod is the fruit of magic- a poison switched for a potion, the effects of which were finally nullified by tragedy. Far from immersing myself in the ideas even for a short moment, the staging kept me from accepting the flawed logic and yearning for the power of forbidden, eternal love.

What can be said about the music and singing? Not much, but in a good way. Nearly flawless, from beginning to end. The orchestra, directed by Sir Simon Rattle, sawed away, unflagging for the duration. Tristan played by Stuart Skelton had a presence of voice that eclipsed everyone onstage until the end of the third act. By that point he began to chip around the edges. Nina Stemme sang beautifully, allowing her voice to blossom fully at the bitter end. Support was near perfection from Ekaterina Gubanova and René Pape.

My summary? This would be a horrible first opera to take a novice. The unceasing music is made less bearable by the bleak staging. What’s worse than six hours of Wagner? A stage director trying to one up Wagner for six hours.

Only a few more days to suffer for art’s sake. Tristan and Isolde is at the Met through October 27. Tickets almost certainly available here.

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