Tristan und Isolde

Simon Rattle
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
13 October 2016
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanStuart Skelton
IsoldeNina Stemme
BrangäneEkaterina Gubanova
KurwenalCarsten Wittmoser
König MarkeRené Pape
MelotNeal Cooper
Ein junger SeemannTony Stevenson
Ein HirtAlex Richardson
SteuermannDavid Crawford
The Washington Post

‘Tristan’ makes Rattle want to ‘curl up in a fetal position’

Simon Rattle thought back to his first staged performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in Amsterdam in 2001.

“I remember wanting to lie down on the rostrum and curl up in a fetal position and sob,” he said. “While every bone of my body was asking me to do that, the rest of me was saying, no, actually you have to be professional and keep on conducting.”

Wagner’s hypnotic love story, composed from 1857-59 and premiered in 1865, returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night in a psychologically fascinating, nautically centered contemporary staging by the Polish director Mariusz Trelinski. The run, marking 50 years since the new house at Lincoln Center opened, continues for a month, and the Oct. 8 matinee will be telecast to movie theaters around the globe.

“Tristan” had not opened a Met season since 1937 and before this staging Rattle had not conducted a full performance since 2009 in Vienna.

Composed during Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner’s “Tristan” was a musical landmark for its chromaticism. Rattle says Wagner’s transformation is evident from the autograph score.

“His handwriting was famously beautiful and accurate, and sometimes he even used to send his musical handwriting to ladies as a kind of seduction tool,” he said. “When you look at the manuscript of ‘Tristan,’ it simply doesn’t do that at all. I mean, it is perfectly legible, but it’s obviously done at such burning haste. It’s like one of the great biographers of Wordsworth said, he didn’t so much write poems as vomit them out. And it looks as though some other power has taken him over.”

Wagner set the first act on Tristan’s ship, the second outside King Marke’s castle in Cornwall and the third at Tristan’s castle in Brittany. Trelinksi and set designer Boris Kudlicka move all three acts to an ominous, dark and starkly lit warship, setting the first in cabins, the second on the bridge and in a lower-deck weapons bay, and the third in sickbay, where Tristan drifts in and out of consciousness and has flashbacks to his youth that include a doppelganger boy.

Sonar is a frequent backdrop for Trelinski along with Bartek Macias’ projections of waves, flames, black suns and the Northern Lights. This production evokes Peter Sellars’ 2005 Paris staging dominated by Bill Viola videos, and Lars von Trier’s 2011 film “Melancholia.”

Trelinski takes liberties with Wagner’s stage directions. Rather than allowing Melot to stab him, Tristan shoots himself with a pistol, and Isolde slits a wrist before the Liebestod. When the production appeared in Warsaw in June, the Liebestod was sung at a newly created state funeral procession for Tristan. At the Met, Trelinski reverted to the staging used at the March premiere in Baden-Baden, Germany, where Isolde sings to Tristan’s dead body slumped in a chair.

Rattle decided on a second-act cut that reduces the love duet by about 10 minutes to a half-hour. The previous staging by Dieter Dorn that was used from 1999-2008, was always performed uncut by James Levine and then Daniel Barenboim.

Rattle said last week “I’ve been begging the orchestra to be more like chiffon than wool,” and after a pulsating, glistening rendition he was greeted by overwhelming cheers and applause. Some boos were mixed in for Trelinski.

Tenor Stuart Skelton (Tristan), soprano Nina Stemme (Isolde) and bass Rene Pape (King Marke) also received bravos. Stemme, dressed at times walking through fog in a trench coat (think Lauren Bacall) had a glorious, if sometimes unemotional sheen to her voice. Skelton became slightly gravelly in the third act.

“What is asked of the tenor is beyond anything the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals should allow,” Rattle said.

His tenure as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, which began in 2002, ends in 2018, and he starts next September as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. He said plans for a new hall on the Museum of London site near St. Paul’s Cathedral may be put on hold because of the Brexit decision by British voters. Rattle plans to return to the Met for a pair of productions in three years.

To prepare for “Tristan,” he studied the marked-up conducting scores of Gustav Mahler and Wilhelm Furtwaengler.

“A mine of information,” Rattle said. “I can’t get them on the phone. The Wi-Fi situation where they are is problematic.”

Ronald Blum | AP September 27 2016

The Guardian

Musical marvel in a grim, cynical cloak

Nina Stemme’s voice is a force of nature, while the orchestra, under Simon Rattle, is ravishing – but the incoherent staging amounts to a juvenile rejection of the work’s erotic power

ristan und Isolde, we are often told, is one of the truest measures of a grand opera company’s resources. It takes a formidable orchestra, a visionary conductor, a hardy cast of supple singers. Less frequently itemized in this array of requirements is a director possessed of useful ideas – but that’s also important, as the Metropolitan Opera’s strange new misfire of a production makes clear.

This season in New York, we have soprano Nina Stemme giving a high-powered, gorgeous account of Isolde – and some ravishing Wagnerian orchestral sweep driven by conductor Sir Simon Rattle. Both of those musicians are too infrequently heard here. Unfortunately, they are laboring in and around a concept by director Mariusz Treliński that isn’t anywhere close to their mutual level of artistry. Judged by the ear, Monday’s premiere was a marvel. By the eye, it was a nearly five-hour parade of unforced errors.

Directorial license in the world of opera takes place between two poles of extremity. One one side, there is the lighter touch. This less-controversial style involves activist moves that nevertheless seek to harmonize in some way with opera as it has been historically understood. These directorial interventions might include putting the action in a new century, using modern dress, or adding some “framing device” – not in the interest of revising the drama, but rather to make its poetry more readily approachable in the moment. The opposing approach might be called the “rewrite” style, wherein the historical intention of the work holds no particular authority, and can thus be stretched, tortured or abandoned at will.

The overdetermined darkness and cynicism of this production falls in the latter bucket. For those who won’t brook any form of directorial liberty-taking, that will be enough to dismiss it. But as someone who has been persuaded by aggressive rethinks at other times, I think it’s important to describe why Treliński’s would-be radical approach seems so poorly conceived.

The first ill omen was the opening prelude, during which the music was pushed from its usual starring role into one of accompaniment – a mere backdrop to a visual pattern of a modern warship’s radar signal, rotating clockwise (over and over).This image impressed, at first, as simply pedestrian and ugly. With its insistent presence over the ensuing three acts, the visual tic did not manage to endear itself. Yet it was just the opening gambit in Treliński’s fruitless straining for gothic urgency. Other video motifs introduced during the first act prelude included a lunar eclipse-like black orb that floated among barren trees in a dark wood. There were also glimpses of a spectral figure in a military outfit. (Alternately, he was gripping a gun, or else a head of a child, close to his chest.) We saw a humble wood-plank abode dissolving into fire and ash.

None of Treliński’s iconography was in a hurry to make itself coherent, in relation to the story of Tristan und Isolde. In fact, the director primed the audience to misread some of his preferred visual cues, for hours. (Elements from that opening montage also introduced the subsequent two acts, just to make extra certain that every viewer would remember to ponder them.) When the brilliant bass René Pape entered as King Marke, his crisp white military outfit seemed to recall the suicidal figure in Treliński’s opening video sequence. But that also made no literal dramatic sense, since in the libretto it’s clear that he has no children. (Also: King Marke wouldn’t live in a wooden shack.) Unless the child he’s gripping close is the fate of his nation? And the burning house a symbol of … something?

If this all seems far removed from the world of thought and emotion typically inspired by a good performance of Tristan und Isolde – well, yes. Finally, in the third act, when Tristan is laid up from a mortal wound and raving in the absence of Isolde, Treliński allows us the interpretive key to his imagery. As Tristan recalls learning of his father’s premature death, the director has a physical replica of the video-depicted, burned-up house wheeled on to the stage. Tristan gambols through the ashes of memory, uncovering his father’s sullied uniform. So it was Tristan who was the child in all those videos. In Treliński’s version, he watches his father commit suicide, rather than learning of the death via a mournful melody that Wagner’s score and libretto present in more poetic detail.

That the director prefers to make his own pictures take precedence over the sounds and words of the opera is, in itself, notable. More important – and more quizzical – is the fact that director has elected to make an opera-wide fetish out of such a minor point in the work. The great length we have to travel for a reveal of such jaw-dropping inconsequence is just one mark of how turgid and unrewarding this staging can feel.

Another major problem with this vision of the opera is the demotion of Isolde that it enforces by necessity. By trapping Tristan so completely within an unresolved daddy drama from childhood, the opera’s more adult-oriented obsessions with death and carnal longing (and their mixture) is severely blunted. Accordingly, tenor Stuart Skelton’s honey-voiced portrayal of Tristan doesn’t have much in the way of chemistry with Stemme’s Isolde. At first, I thought this a deficit in Skelton’s acting. By the third act, the production’s overall hostility to the erotic was more clearly to blame. In the end, Skelton was reduced to being propped up like a lifesize stuffed animal – blank and expressionless, in death as in life – while Isolde slashed her wrist and sang the Liebestod. (Marvelously, for all that mattered.)

It’s not that there’s nothing to new to say about Tristan und Isolde. It might be possible for a production to offer a point of contrast with the romance that is undeniably there in the music (despite its famous chromaticism and general adventurism). I can imagine a world in which a director might make some kind of interesting point about the contradictions that are inherent in the pursuit of love during wartime. Or a staging that engages philosophically with the fact that the lovers’ fevered affections are inspired by a potion, in the first instance. But Treliński’s cynical take doesn’t have anything detailed to offer, save for a juvenile rejection of the work’s charms. There’s no synthetic argumentation, just a stark refusal to do justice to the balance of light and dark that is present in the opera.

That Stemme gave such a lustrous and controlled reading of all her act three music seemed like a sort of implicit protest against the cheap grimness of this production. Upon encountering her already dead Tristan, she asks whether she will be denied a chance to at least luxuriate for another hour in the problems they faced together (“Nicht meine Klagen darf ich dir sagen?”).

It might as well have been a question posed to Stemme’s director – the same artist who, in act two, set the lovers’ exultation on a portion of the ship that looked like an early George Lucas sketch for a Death Star observation deck, and who staged another rendezvous in a cavern of the vessel otherwise dedicated to storing chemical refuse. (There were audible laughs in the audience when one of the chemical drums was knocked over and hit the stage with the sound of an oversized dodgeball falling to the floor in an elementary school gym.) Rattle worked with Treliński where he could, building to some climaxes with a halting, noir-like approach – whereas James Levine might have privileged a greater sense of flow. But at other junctures, Rattle departed from the tenor of the staging and let the music sing the way its composer intended.

The opening night audience was not confused about what worked and what did not. The singers, who ranged from good to great, received commensurate ovations. Pape got a big one – which he’d earned by imparting a real sense of injury and emotional stakes during his features. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova started out a bit underpowered in the role of Brangäne – but by the time of her more fervent debates with Isolde, the singer held her own alongside Stemme’s force-of-nature voice. Rattle and Stemme were both duly appreciated.

Upon their curtain call, the production team inspired a blend of less-forceful applause and some hearty booing. Voices of disapproval at the premiere of a new production aren’t new, of course. Nor are they always correct. In the past, I’ve encouraged Met patrons to give chancy stagings an honest try. Last season, I enjoyed Treliński’s sly presentation of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta alongside Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. But his Tristan amounts to a feverish squandering of elite operatic resources.

Seth Colter Walls | Tuesday 27 September 2016

Financial Times

Mariusz Treliński’s production of Wagner’s opera is clumsy, but musical standards are high

The mighty Met hasn’t had much luck with Tristan und Isolde in recent times. In the so-called good old days, Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk enjoyed the vocal splendours of Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Helen Traubel and Astrid Varnay, not to mention such lesser lights (term used advisedly) as Set Svanholm and Ramón Vinay. Theatrical values, however, were prosperously primitive. So were the cuts.

The last Met Tristan, dating back to 1999, was staged by Dieter Dorn. Surviving till 2008, it fluctuated between neat abstraction and silly obfuscation. Now, as of Monday, we have yet another problematic version of the beloved love-tragedy, this one directed by Mariusz Treliński and designed by Boris Kudlička. It is shared, not incidentally, with Baden-Baden, the Polish National Opera and Beijing.

Treliński has set the period piece in a modern symbol-land dominated by a seemingly irrelevant, eminently fussy radar circle-scope that spins on the quasi-industrial cyclorama ad nauseam. The hyper-clever sets, which reportedly place the inaction “in a contemporary wartime setting”, provide more confusion than enlightenment. At best one should try to ignore the clumsy sexual images.

All this is doubly regrettable because the musical standards remain lofty. Simon Rattle conducts with a compelling fusion of piety, pity and passion. Nina Stemme invests Isolde with luminous tone, tireless energy and infectious sympathy. Stuart Skelton’s Tristan may lack the power of his most illustrious predecessors, but he sings — also acts! — with unfailing urgency. René Pape commands the stage as usual, this time as the sadly betrayed King Marke. Appropriately integrated support is provided by Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne and Evgeny Nikitin as Kurwenal.

The official company blurb proclaims that Tristan stresses themes associated with ancient Celtic culture: mysticism, magic arts, an evolved warrior code and a non-Christian vision of the afterlife. Little of that emerged on Treliński’s stage.

The production was dedicated to the memory of Johan Botha, the extraordinary South African tenor who died of cancer at 51 this month. A member in good vocal standing of a vanishing super-forceful breed, he had sung 80 performances of 10 roles with the Met over the past 20 years. His heavyweight assignments included the title roles of Verdi’s Don Carlo and Otello, Stolzing in Wagner’s endless Meistersinger plus Siegmund in Die Walküre and Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio, not to mention the daunting protagonist in Tannhäuser. He will be sorely missed.

Martin Bernheimer | 27 September 2016


Love Is a Battlefield in the Met’s Compelling ‘Tristan und Isolde’

This gala opening night was serious business

The glitz of the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night on Monday was confined to the audience, from the bouffant evening gowns of socialites to the star power of a galaxy of celebrities including Adrian Brody, Bianca Jagger and Placido Domingo. Meanwhile, what was happening on stage was very serious business indeed: a new production of Wagner’s hymn to romantic love Tristan und Isolde that was raw, compelling and ultimately heartbreaking.

Director Mariusz Trelinski’s austere view of the five-hour work transposes the action from medieval Cornwall to a military dictatorship in the recent past, with the star-crossed lovers furtively meeting in the operations room of an abandoned warship. Trelinski envisions erotic attraction as a kind of psychosis: from the moment the pair quaff a love potion, they lose sight of the borderline between reality and fantasy.

This is the first time Tristan has served as opening night material since the 1937 season when the leads were Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, arguably the two greatest Wagner voices of all time. If the current cast lacked some of the godlike vocal glamour of these artists, they more than made up for it in sensitive musicality and dramatic grit.

Nina Stemme’s superb Isolde is no surprise after her revelatory Elektra last season, but the greater complexity of the Wagner heroine’s emotional journey revealed a vast and fascinating variety of vocal colors. The soprano’s gradual build, line by line and note by note, to the climax of her final “Liebestod” aria was shattering.

Even more impressive was tenor Stuart Skelton, who not only flaunted vocal power and stamina ideal for the marathon role of Tristan, but also threw himself with frightening power into Trelinski’s concept of the character as a loner haunted by a deadly secret in his past.

René Pape has essentially owned the role of Isolde’s husband King Marke at the Met since he first sang it here in 1999. His bass retains its velvety magnificence, but this time around he brought a sinister edge to the character that added a frisson to his long second act monologue.

Rivaling his vocal splendor were mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova and bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as the servants Brangäne and Kurwenal. They grippingly portrayed their characters’ terror and anguish without sacrificing richness of tone.

This was, in fact, the most beautiful sounding performance of this opera I can remember, thanks in large part to the flexible, transparent leadership of Sir Simon Rattle. His is “conservative” conducting in the best sense of the word: never “Rattle’s Tristan” but rather “Wagner’s Tristan.”

More to the point, it’s the Met’s Tristan, a production that finds the company operating at the top of its form.

James Jorden | 09/27/16

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A production by Mariusz Treliński (2016)