Jere, Dale, Richard, and I saw the new production of *Tristan und Isolde* at the Met on 10/8. The musical performance was fantastic and the production was a mixed bag, tipping on the side of lousy. I'll talk about the music first.
The conductor was Sir Simon Rattle, a great English conductor who only made his Met debut in 2010. He conducted the score with a great feeling of forward motion. The moments when he surprised me were always moment where he pushed it forward, rather than pulled it back. This is a nice change for *Tristan*, which sometimes has as much propulsion as a '77 Buick running on fumes. There were moments where the orchestra was a little wonky in their coordination, but for some reason I liked it, I thought it added a nice sense of looseness.
The Isolde was Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. She must have heard something that her compatriot Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson said about singing Wagner: "It's not how loud you sing, it's how QUIETLY you sing." Stemme sang with great taste and delicacy, but also let loose with a flood of sound when needed (which is often). Most importantly, she sounded fresh and secure from start to finish, which is a tall order in a five-hour opera.
The Tristan was Australian tenor Stuart Skelton. Strong, handsome voice, not especially colorful, but up to the task. He and Stemme had nice chemistry. He sounded a little worse for wear by the end of his long, LONG death scene in Act 3, but he held out to the end, didn't derail, didn't crash and burn.
Ekaterina Gubanova was Brangaene, Isolde's gal pal. Lovely voice - - the highlight of the score, for me, is Brangaene's warning in Act 2, and she sang it gloriously. Evgeny Nikitin was Tristan's wing man Kurwenal. Handsome voice and a strong performance.
The most impressive performance was by Rene Pape as King Marke. The first time I heard *T & I* was in Seattle 1998. The King Marke in that performance was bass Peter Rose. Isolde is supposed to marry King Marke, and in Act 2 he walks in on Tristan and Isolde making out, which leads to a long, LONG aria from him about the double betrayal (Tristan is like a son to him - - oh, the humanity). When Peter Rose sang it, it was the most endless, boring thing I could imagine. I saw this same production in Chicago in 2000 - - they had Pape playing King Marke, and his aria was the most riveting, thrilling moment of the evening! I couldn't believe it was the same music I had heard in Seattle, it was totally chalk and cheese. Pape was just as extraordinary in this performance, he is a great artist.
OK, now the bad news. The production was directed by Mariusz Trelinski. Richard and I had seen his double bill of *Iolanta* and *Bluebeard's Castle* last year, and we liked *Iolanta* a lot. *Bluebeard* didn't make sense. He got some things right in Tristan - - the drama between the characters was potent (but maybe that's more due to the singers, who knows). There was a moment of brilliance at the end of Act 2: Marke has (finally) finished his "Oh, the humanity" aria and Tristan and Isolde have a tender, intimate little moment before the act closes. Trelinski staged this as taking place in Tristan's imagination, which worked so well - - because really, how can T and I really have a tender, intimate moment with all those other people onstage, including his father figure and her husband-elect?
But oh Lordy he got a lot wrong. First off, he relied much too heavily on projected videos. If I wanted to watch a movie, I would go to the movies! The prelude was accompanied by a video that was abstract at first, and didn't bother me - - but then he gave us black and white film of a ship moving through a roiling sea. All I could think of was "The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed..." There's always lots of time for your mind to wander in a Wagner opera, but you do NOT want it to wander to *Gilligan's Island.*
The design was a dud, almost uniformly black and white and grey. Jere put it perfectly: it's like the director was making a black and white movie. I should say that the production I saw in Seattle and Chicago was magical and set the bar very high for this opera - - director Francesca Zambello filled the stage with beauty and imagination and deep wondrous longing. Our stage was full of suffering and disgruntled dissatisfaction. Not pleasant for the audience.
A few questions for the director: why was Isolde wearing an Eileen Fisher jacket in the first act? And yes, it's bothersome that Isolde turns into a dumb bunny in Act 2, but do you really make her appear more strong by having her throw her gal pal to the floor? Why was Tristan shooting some random guy in the head below decks in Act 1? Of all the places that you could choose for a setting for Act 2, why did you choose the villain's lair from a 1980s James Bond movie? And does Tristan's long, LONG death scene gain anything by being staged as a fever dream? With a little boy roaming about?
I'm afraid this production might be with us for a while. I'll be listening to it on the radio.