While Treliński's production sometimes read against Wagner's text, it was very attentive to the music, to the setting of gestures and glances, movement and stillness. All three acts take place on the ship, lending additional tension to the artificially closed society of the plot, and additional poignancy to the lovers' desire to absorb the whole world into themselves. The world outside the ship may have been annihilated or simply deemed irrelevant; in any case, the ship is a successor to the mythical countries of medieval romance. Wo sind wir? Where are we? ask the lovers, and the question is never meant only literally. Tristan and Isolde are, of course, in separate compartments in Act I, he on the bridge and she in a cabin, but they both retreat to the lower stage left when overwhelmed and seeking privacy. It is in this same space that they will find their truest intimacy in Acts II and III. The video projections, designed by Bartek Macias, were the first I have seen in person that have made a substantive contribution to an opera production. Some complained about the repetitive nature of the images, but I took them as visual leitmotifs. The forest might be the forest in which Tristan's mother perishes, but it's also reminiscent of the films of Eisenstein and Tarkovsky, to say nothing of the many forests in which the quests of medieval romance take place. One of the most persistent images is of a radar screen: blank, seeking, reaching into the unknown. Sometimes this field is itself filled with memories and visions; in Act III, it is synchronized with the hospital machines that record the persistence of the life that Tristan tries to renounce, before at last being obliterated by waves and Weltatem.
I heard Asher Fisch conduct Parsifal three years ago, and Thursday's Tristan was no less impressive. Fisch led the orchestra in a performance that was daring both in scope and detail, charting a sure course from the first murmurs of the strings to the final, ecstatic hush. Fisch used dynamic variation and subtle shifts in tempi to great effect, drawing on the apparently inexhaustible resources of the Met's orchestra. To single out strings, brass, or woodwinds would be invidious; they were all excellent. It is the orchestra, after all, that must give voice to the lovers' speechlessness and that must echo their cries, that must give full expression to the meanings and implications of a libretto with vocabulary as limited and rich as that of liturgy or myth. All this they did. Each of the Vorspiele seemed a study in itself. I was also very impressed by the stage-pit coordination, precise enough that the turn of Tristan's head spoke volumes, even before Was ist? Isolde? and Marke broke my heart by extending his hand to his friend on that last, unbearable wail of the brass in Act II. I know I'm gushing, but I love this work, where metaphysical reflections vibrate in one's bones and blood.
Among the principal singers there was not a weak link. Ekaterina Gubanova's Brangäne was sensitively characterized as a woman of strong passions, dedicated to placing duty before desire. She sang with fine phrasing and clear diction. The rich, dark tone of her mezzo, too, made an effective contrast to Stemme's gleaming soprano. Gubanova's use of her physicality also compared interestingly with Stemme's, notably in Act I, where Brangäne's fierce control is the ineffective counterweight to Isolde's rage. "Habet acht!" was impressively steady and centered, as was the beautifully spun-out "Einsam wachend." Evgeny Nikitin, as Kurwenal, sang with a rich variety of vocal color, and good attention to text. Kurwenal is, arguably, a character remarkable for his lack of introspection, but Nikitin made him sympathetic. His loyalty to Tristan is no less absolute for being yoked to unusual clear-sightedness concerning his beloved hero's weaknesses. I didn't feel that the cuts to his role in Act III seriously affected characterization.
|Marke and Tristan, Act II, photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera|
Stuart Skelton's Tristan would have been remarkable even if judged by Act III alone. But I shall try not to anticipate. Unlike Isolde, on whom there is consensus, Tristan is a man whose qualities are much disputed. He is Tristan der Held, faithless and loyal... and, in a way that can feel unexpected, the delirious philosopher of Act III. Skelton cultivated a quiet authority (vocal and physical) that worked well to establish his character in Act I. He may be a man living on his nerves, but he is also introspective, an observer. "Herr Tristan trete nah" is here a command that is ignored: Isolde is brought to Tristan, as the ship's captain. In public, then, Tristan demonstrates his authority... but behind closed doors, he lets Isolde have free run of his quarters, even to the point of examining the papers on his desk (and, more tellingly, running her hand over his chair.) He is also, in this reading, a man deeply shaken by the discovery of the inevitable. In Act II, Skelton sang with warmer and fuller tone; while Tristan may be caught between two worlds, his ardor is unshaken, steady. These may seem unusually mild words to use for this opera, but I found this focus on mature desire, rather than febrile longing, very moving. I also appreciated Skelton's dynamic restraint in the final scene of the act. "Wohin nun Tristan scheidet?" was here a hallucination, but no less tender and intimate for being so. It was in Act III, though, that he was strongest. The relative vocal restraint of the first two acts was entirely cast off. The sustained phrasing and the hallucinatory repetitions were given sustained emotional tension, as well as weight, culminating--as they should, as they must--in the curse. It filled the house, searing, devastating, absolute. The imagined triumph as he prepares to greet his Isolde is undercut by his broken phrasing; he is a dying man. But I couldn't feel this as a defeat.
|Skelton and Stemme as Tristan und Isolde|