Saturday, October 01, 2016

New Tristan at the Met

Rock Creek Park. Camera: Pentax Spotmatic. Film: Ektar100.

Yes, yes, this happened last Monday, but FWIW here are some thoughts about the new Met Tristan...

Nothing (save Norma) brings out the haters like high profile Wagner, and there has been a lot of mixed opinion on the leads, especially Stuart Skelton’s Tristan. Frankly, it all seems like an awfully precarious position to take in an era when we still don’t have the technology to reanimate the corpse of Vinay or Melchior. 

Skelton’s Act I was touch and go for a bit, with a pleasant enough sound but some bellowing issues too. Act II found Skelton locking into gear with a warm, lyrical contribution to the (annoyingly truncated) duet. Yes, he sacrifices cutting power for beauty at times, but given the alternative, this feels like a fair choice. 

I think the basic test for Act III is not consistent beauty of sound (which would seem at odds with any dramatically worthy performance) but whether the singer comes off as owning the music or being owned by it. Skelton far surpassed this bar, giving us a fully realized reading of Tristan's lament without ever letting it get the best of him. 

Nina Stemme needs little introduction, especially for DC audiences still swooning over her single cycle of Brunnhildes last spring. Stemme's vocal performance here was full of moments to appreciate, always passionate and present yet beautifully sung at the same time. She felt a bit cautious for opening night, giving an additional beat here and there to make sure an attack landed truly, but nothing that detracted from the overall impact.

Her Isolde is devoid of the haughtiness that singers sometimes look to in order to make sense of this character. As with her Brunnhilde, Stemme finds the driven, type-A core of Wagner's heroine. Yet her Act III was also sensitively felt, her reunion with the dying Tristan appropriately pitiful. Stemme focuses relentlessly on the union of voice and text rather than overwhelming sound and line, and, fair enough, this is not everyone is looking for in their Isolde. But one would be hard pressed to deny that this is one of the great Isolde assumptions available to us on the stage today.

Rene Pape did his duties as King Marke (between this and the 'Manz one feels like he is always lecturing Met audiences about something), with his usual penetrating intelligence. I'll say this felt just a tad less special than his assumption in the last (second to last?) run of the Dorn production that I saw a number of years back. King Marke's monologue needs to exist in the same suspended time as Wotan's Walkure Act II speech, and something about the staging here seemed to distract from that.

Ekaterina Gubanova was a stunning Brangane; by turns tender and argumentative, she reminded the audience what a satisfying role this can be in the right hands. Evgeny Nikitin offered a committed Kurwenal, though a somewhat hollow sound failed to make much of a vocal impression. Neal Cooper sang an odd Melot, with a put-on nasal villain character voice a la Mime. I'm assuming his straight voice doesn't sound like this, but it was a weird choice.

Simon Rattle made undeniable magic in the pit, driving the gorgeous Met orchestra in a vibrant, emotionally compelling reading. Rattle worked the score intensely, ensuring each small moment boiled with intensity, and never afraid of pushing a rawer sound in favor of emotional impact, though it was all thunder and flash. Rattle demonstrated an enviable intelligence in accompanying the long Act III monologue and quiet moments of heartbreaking poignancy throughout. If there's a quibble here, its that two big showpieces--the overture and love duet--didn't quite achieve the slow burn and release one would like. Clearly Rattle knows far more about this score than I, but if we're going to tally brute payoffs, they didn't quite happen.

Markus Trelinski’s production has a lot of compelling moments and design elements going for it, but is also trying to do...a lot. Cutting out 2 or 3 of its big gestures would go a long ways towards creating something more successful.

Things kick off with a prelude accompaniment video, here a pinging radar with video of a choppy sea and images hinting at Tristan's backstory. I am not opposed to a choreographed prelude, but I do have a healthy skepticism for overture projections (i.e. videos, not staged business), especially in Wagner, where one needs to be REAL SURE one has something valuable to add. I think part of the problem is that opera production money is just not enough money to effectively realize a director's vision for CGI projections at this point. With rare exceptions, what we get almost invariably feels a bit chintzy and cobbled together, regardless of how slick the subsequent production is. The projections in this production were better than some but still felt like an unnecessary distraction, giving us dull, literal imagery that just feels petty when the music is trying to unlock our collective subconcious. 

The hulking military ship set for Act I is quite impressive, sort of a grim version of the vessel from "Life Aquatic." The lighting is shockingly dim throughout (the ENTIRE show is played behind a scrim), certain to annoy some, but it hauntingly reinforces the contrast between bleak reality and the wanton excess of the characters' desires. The drinking of the potion is especially effective, realized as a desperate suicide pact that plays out deep in the bowels of the ship. Tristan and Isolde are ultimately left in pitch blackness, as though they could have stayed deep underwater forever, but instead find themselves cruelly thrust into the light.

Unfortunately, with so many fun rooms to play with, Trelinski feels the need to really give the set a workout, and the staging becomes overly busy with constant location changes that sometimes make it challenging to really dig into the long scenes of Act I.

There is also the small matter of Tristan executing Morold in cold blood, who apparently didn't die as expected but has been taken aboard the ship as a hostage. I suppose one could have built a meta-storyline around this that plays on a bloodthirsty Tristan, but it mostly feels shocking and out of character. This is the first in a series of ill-advised libretto embellishments from Trelinski that have a sort of passing novelty but fail to really add anything to the text.

Act II's design nicely pursues the dark industrial military theme, with Isolde waiting for Tristan's return on the ship's bridge, a foreboding air traffic control/prison watchtower-type space. Once the love duet begins, however, things deteriorate quickly. First, there is that cut, about 7 minutes before "O Sink Hernieder," which I was prepared to accept but it ended up being pretty jarring in practice. Then, just as things are getting down to business, the curtain goes down during Brangane's interlude (which she has to do miked offstage) and comes up on a vast industrial bay, where I suppose T n' I are planning to bang once the song is done?

Aimless blocking during the next 15 minutes takes them all over the warehouse for little discernible purpose, but worst of all is the giant projection of a smoky space orb that appears on the scrim. I think this can be chalked up to the same impulse that got the Machine Ring into such trouble--fear that people will be bored with what every Wagner opera comes down to in the end: humans standing around singing for what feels like an inordinately long amount of time. Trelinski solves the "problem" here (though shows restraint elsewhere) by introducing a scenic element that feels wildly out of place with the grim practical world created so far.

Act III stages Kareol as a modest hospital ward, which finds Tristan comatose on a gurney placed center stage, the pinging radar projection reused as a heart monitor. Midway through Tristan's big scene, he steps through one of the hospital walls and finds himself in (I think) his burnt down childhood home, and young Tristan emerges to reenact its destruction.

I have two problems with this. First, invented backstory is not the same as providing new ideas to support a text. Did anyone come away from Monday saying "Oh OK i get why Tristan did it now!"? Especially in Wagner, adding invented context for the characters beyond whatever ambiguous hints are contained in the libretto seems very useless. The hard work is creating a production that evokes the themes in the text at a deeper level while leaving the surface story intact.

Second, meta-material needs to serve the dramatic impact of what's happening onstage in addition to giving us something to think about. The burned out home satisfies this to some degree, but one can't help but think about how much more effective this staging might have been if it had tried to unify its bonus ideas with the musical angle Skelton was trying to work at the same time. As it currently plays out, he just seems kind of annoyed by the superfluous stage business he has to execute while gasping for breath.

The end is well done, with a faceless army of flashlights advancing on Tristan und Isolde in their fleeting moment of reunion. Isolde is seen slashing her wrists here, neatly explaining her later sinking to the ground "transfigured." I'm not sure if this is really necessary, though as an explanation of that inexplicable ending this seems understated and fine.

At the end of this scene, the stage goes dark and when Marke and Brangane enter its as if the lovers were never there, an eerie effect that underlines how both are already unbound from the earthly world. Once this interlude is done, Isolde reemerges and sings the Liebestod to a ghost (?) of Tristan sitting calmly downstage on a bench. There was something awkward about having Stemme pad about the corner of the stage for the whole song, when at that point we really just wanted her to plant center and SERVE IT.

Bottom line--this show can't be missed for the impressive cast and conductor it offers. The production is not ideal, but when its good it is effective and interesting and when it is bad it is at least bad in interesting ways. And hey, Tristan opening night FTW right?

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