On October 8th, the Metropolitan Opera opened their 2016-2017 Live in HD series with the new production of Wagner’s epic Tristan und Isolde. It was both wonderful and confusing.
The production stars Stuart Skelton as Tristan, Nina Stemme as Isolde, René Pape as King Marke, Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne, and Evgeny Nikitin as Kurneval. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. The director is Mariusz Treliński, with sets by Boris Kudlička.
The orchestra, led by Sir Simon Rattle, was superb and very moving. The tempi seemed neither too fast nor too slow. Nina Stemme was a wonderful Isolde, so moving and sung with such conviction. René Pape provided such a moving King Marke that one could literally feel his pain in Act 2. Stuart Skelton was adequate at best as Tristan in my opinion. Through the first two acts he sounded more like a Baritone to me. He also tends to strain his voice at times. However, he sounded a bit better in the third act. As he is still relatively new to the role of Tristan, I am hopeful that he will improve with experience. But at the moment, there is a far bit of work to go.
The production itself was good at times, but rather confusing at most times. The first act was by far the best, in my humble opinion. The first act takes place on a modern looking warship, which was simply an updated version of what Wagner actually wrote. The Prelude included video, part of which shows a modern warship travelling through rough seas. It fit perfectly with the orchestration and the first act.
The second act, which is supposed to take place in the garden of King Marke’s castle, instead takes place back on the warship, first on the bridge, and then in the hold of the ship. This was confusing and was a total disregard to what Wagner wrote.
The third act was just as confusing. Instead of taking place in Tristan’s castle in Kareol, it instead takes place in a hospital room. While I can sort of understand the rationale for the location, but as Kurvenal specifically tells Tristan that they are in Tristan’s castle, the set completely ignores the text, something that I always frown upon.
A subplot in this production, which I found confusing and only took away from the production was how the director handled Tristan’s father. He is not supposed to appear at all, but in this production is seen through video backdrops. It was clear to me that Tristan’s father had set fire to the family home and then committed suicide by shooting himself. At a number of points through the performance, a man in a wait uniform with what looks like blood coming down his left side, is seen look at Tristan. Why Tristan’s father kept showing up, and disappearing a few seconds later, was pointless and except for when Tristan, briefly, discusses his father in Act 3, was nothing more than a distraction and only took away from the performance. Also, for a short time during Act 3, the scene is changed to a burnt out house – obviously the home that Tristan’s father burnt down. I don’t know where the director got this idea, but it took away from the production.
On a side note, during the first act, there were a couple of incidents where the director decided to have the crew of Tristan’s ship make obvious sexual advances to Brangäne and Isolde. I personally found this distasteful, and made me wonder what the director’s intentions were. However, it was totally uncalled for.
There were two other issues with Act 3 in my opinion. Firstly, after Tristan’s death, King Marke sings to an empty hospital bed – Tristan is nowhere to be found, despite that fact that King Make is specifically singing to him. Why? This made absolutely no sense and again pulled down the production – and took away from a fine performance by René Pape. The second issue was Isolde cutting her wrist and arm. Again, Isolde is not supposed to commit suicide, so why the director required her only took away from Nina Stemme’s performance.
The two big highlights of the performance for me were Mr. Pape’s second act aria, and Ms. Stemme’s Liebestod.
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