Met Opera "Tristan and Isolde": Fifty Shades of Grey

Nina Stemme in "Tristan and Isolde"
(photo: Met Opera)

Richard Wagner's monumental work Tristan and Isolde was the opening production of the current season by the Metropolitan Opera. It's monumental on the basis of its glorious music as well as its demands on the stamina of both performers and audience alike, at nearly five hours in length, despite featuring only a half dozen singing roles and a fairly simple and concise plot.

Isolde (soprano Nina Stemme), an Irish princess, is being transported to Cornwall, for her wedding to King Marke (bass Rene Pape), on the ship of his nephew Tristan (tenor Stuart Skelton). Her maid, Brangane (mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova), tries to calm her when Tristan's companion Kurwenal (bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin) ridicules the Irish women. Isolde suggests that she and Tristan drink from a cup containing poison but is in fact a love potion mixed by Brangane. After landing, Isolde waits for a rendezvous with Tristan while the king is off on a hunting party. Brangäne warns her about spies, particularly the jealous knight Melot (tenor Neal Cooper). When Tristan appears, Isolde passionately welcomes him. They agree that they feel secure in the night but Brangane's call warns that it will soon be daylight. Kurwenal rushes in to warn them that the king has returned, led by Melot, denouncing the lovers. Marke declares that it was Tristan who urged him in the first place to pursue Isolde and can't understand how he could dishonor him in such a way. Tristan cannot answer and asks Isolde if she will follow him to her death. When she accepts, Melot attacks Tristan, who falls wounded into Kurwenal’s arms. Later, the mortally ill Tristan is tended by Kurwenal. A shepherd (tenor Alex Richardson) inquires about his master, and Kurwenal explains that only Isolde, with her magic arts, could save him. The shepherd agrees to play a cheerful tune on his pipe as soon as he sees a ship approaching. Tristan, hallucinating, imagines that it is night when he will reunite with Isolde. He thanks Kurwenal for his devotion, then envisions Isolde’s ship approaching. He tears off his bandages, letting his wounds bleed. Isolde rushes in, and he falls, dying, in her arms. Kurwenal stabs Melot before he is killed himself by the king’s soldiers. Marke, overwhelmed with grief at the death of Tristan, had come to pardon the lovers. Isolde, transfigured, does not hear, and envisions Tristan beckoning her to the world beyond. She sinks, dying upon his body.

Stemme, universally known for her interpretation of Isolde, commandingly proved just how deserving she is of this renown. Her flawless singing was indelibly effective, enhanced by powerful acting and presence (especially in the final act's Liebestod). She was perfectly matched by Skelton, Nikitin and Pape, all of them making for an unforgettable ensemble, exquisitely conducted by Simon Rattle. Would that the same could be said for the production, which was ugly, bizarre and confusing. Most of the story took place (at least seemingly) on the ship conveying Isolde to Cornwall, then in a warehouse containing depth charges, finally in a hospital. All in fifty or more monotonously boring shades of grey, pewter and black, both in sets and costumes (save for a couple of white starched uniforms and one velvet dress the color of oxblood). There were some distracting choices, such as a silent Tristan as a boy, and in the most egregious and wrong-headed portrayal of Isolde's death, meant to be a transfiguring union with the dead Tristan, but reduced to a graphically disturbing suicide. For the record, the Production was by Mariusz Trelinski, Set Design by Boris Kudlicka, Costume Design by Marek Adamski and Lighting Design by Marc Heinz, the last being the only acceptable contribution to the proceedings.

On a scale of one to ten, give the visuals a minus one, and the singers and orchestra an eleven.

Fathom Events will re-broadcast this HD event this Wednesday October 12 at a theater near you.

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