Love in the Cargo Bay: Tristan und Isolde, Metropolitan Opera 10-3-16

So I had the opportunity to see the Met’s new Tristan und Isolde on Monday night. This is only the second time I’ve seen this opera live – or, rather, it’s sort of the first-and-two-thirds time, because the first time I went to see it, in Vienna, I misapprehended the schedule, arrived late, and was directed to the Opera Detention Area where I had to wait and watch Act I on a video feed until the intermission.

This production by Mariusz Treliński is grim. It opens with projection animation, a repeatedly inscribed glowing green circle on a black background – like radar or sonar on a ship – and through this we see, in reversed black and white, film-negative-style, crashing waves and the prow of a warship. Tristan and Isolde are on a modern military ship, with low gray rooms, outfitted in metal, and a very clangy metal staircase to one side. Tristan can see Isolde and Brangäne via a video feed projected onto the wall of the control center that makes up the uppermost level. There is a consistent feel of descending into ever darker levels as the story unfolds – when Tristan finally agrees to go and talk to Isolde in Act I, they go downstairs to the very belly of the ship; in Act II, they meet almost outdoors, in an observation area, but soon go down again, into the cargo hold (it is a cargo hold – there is cargo, even, and King Marke makes his entrance through the rear doors in a cloud of light and vapor; the effect is somewhere between Das Boot and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and in Act III, Tristan awaits death and Isolde in a dark, cavernous hospital room. Sometimes the stage disappears behind the animation – in Act II, as Brangäne (Ekaterina Gubanova) warns the two of danger, we see rushing clouds, and ultimately the (often repeated) image of a solar eclipse.

Act III, which depends on Tristan being excellent by himself for about an hour and which can thus go wrong quite easily, is broken up visually by a move from the black hospital room into a burned-out hut as Tristan muses about his past. This part can drag on under some circumstances – we want Isolde to show up almost as much as Tristan does – but in this case it doesn’t, because Stuart Skelton is so consistently good. I have listened to recordings of this opera and felt, by Act III or so, that I had had rather enough of tenors in distress for one evening, but this was emphatically not the case on Monday night. Nina Stemme was also very satisfying as Isolde. It’s interesting hearing this opera live as opposed to on CD – on recordings, the voices are often placed a little bit more forward; in a live performance, even a big voice like Stemme’s gets drawn into the orchestral music at climactic moments, which I find I don’t mind. The show was stolen by René Pape as King Marke, however. His long soliloquy in Act II had a dramatic force that stood out from everything else I heard that evening. The Met’s orchestra with Simon Rattle also outdid itself – the wrenching musical tension in the score was vividly expressed. Rattle held the final chord longer than I expected, but very effectively. (And no one interrupted with premature applause!).

11 thoughts on “Love in the Cargo Bay: Tristan und Isolde, Metropolitan Opera 10-3-16

  1. Thanks for this review—or, for me, preview. I am looking forward to seeing this live in HD on Saturday. I expect top notch singing/acting from NS, and I hope SS will be in top form as he was Monday.

    I’ve been “training” for this opera by listening to the Stemme/Domingo studio recording and watching the Marthaler Bayreuth video (courtesy of Medici and Amazon prime.) Apparently, NS was the first Isolde in that production. Iréne Theorin Is no slouch either; I enjoyed her acting and singing and probably will go back to it again.

    But I need to have one Tristan-free day (tomorrow) before the Big Broadcast!


      1. Of course, Domingo is not the “typical” Wagner sound, which I find refreshing. His tone is perhaps more appropriate in Lohengrin (Wagner’s “Italian” opera) but lends a lighter, easier tone than the one usually hears in T&I. People complain about his German pronunciation, but it doesn’t bother me particularly. All in all, I wouldn’t get this recording because of PD but I wouldn’t skip in on his account, either. The rest of the cast is wonderful (with a well-known and beloved King Marke);and Tony P’s leads the London forces with flair.


      2. I did enjoy the met broadcast yesterday. I have to confess it’s my first time sitting straight through T&I and I found myself drifting a bit during Act 3. That said, I confirmed my conviction that you really just need to “give in” to Wagner’s pace; let time stand still, as it were; and the piece doesn’t seem quite as long as it really is.

        All of the singing was glorious; but I wished for better acting from Tristan and Kurwenal (and less barkiness from K). I was not bothered by the updated setting, though the set was nothing if not dreary. For me, the cargo ship setting enhanced the feeling of Isolde being kidnapped. The sailors menacing the women was creepy but appropriate. A little part of me wanted Isolde to be a bit dressier; but, her dress and demeanor accentuated the “captive” aspect.

        By Act III, I was finding the projections annoying (I was going to say pretentious, but that doesn’t seem quite the right word.) Having read several reviews, I already knew we were going for Tristan’s father issues. However, I think that took away from the central theme of Transcendent love and put Isolde in the background. Did T need to die for love because he never knew his parents? If I were taking a father issue angle, I would explore Tristan’s relationship with Uncle Marke–his father figure–and why, after already falling in love with Isolde when she healed him, did Tristan insist on marrying her to his uncle instead of keeping her for himself. Now THAT’s an angle 🙂

        I was admittedly restless during Act III, but I also was distracted by T’s stumbling around the set; I found myself worrying more about the singer’s well being and less about Tristan’s (back)story. I like Marthaler’s version better here, where T sings most of the scene from bed… gets up; stumbles a bit; falls; and sings the rest from the floor. (Speaking of worrying about the people on stage, the kid with the lighter made me very nervous, too! I really need to try to ignore the “stagecraft” and just enjoy the show!)

        Finally, if I were directing, and I felt Isolde must do herself in rather than dying simply because Tristan died, I’d have her drink that Todestrank instead of slicing her wrist. Although there was something shared and poetic about both lovers basically bleeding to death, it sort of diminished the whole Liebestod concept for me. “I love you so much that I died” is a bit different than” I love you so much that I killed myself.” At least I think so, not having personal experience with either.

        So, I don’t think I’d buy the DVD; but I am glad I got to experience the full Tristan Experience.
        Oh, and the intermission features: While I could live happily ever after without ever hearing any more from P. Gelb!, I think having Deborah Voigt host was an inspiration. I could have spent a lot more time listening to her chat with Sir Simon; I postponed a rest-room break to listen to Rene Pape’s interview*; and the Isolde-on-Isolde chat was fascinating. I’d love to see/hear DV and NS sit and talk Isolde when they could both relax and one of them doesn’t have to get ready to go back on stage.

        *opera-going tip: back off on the coffee intake before a performance of T&I–or most any opera, really…


        1. Thanks for the review (cleverly disguised as a blog comment!). The point about Tristan’s issues with his father didn’t occur to me – same with your point about Isolde slicing her wrists at the end. I may have to get the DVD of this when it comes out; it always takes me more than one go-around to absorb any given production of this opera. And it sounds like the intermission interviews were unusually good too. (And yeah, the kid with the lighter – as a person sitting in a theater watching a child literally play with fire I found myself thinking – well, the whole stage is probably shellacked in flame-retardant, right? right???)


          1. Thank you!! After all, this is how I got started on my own blog 🙂

            I know many of us opera fans sometimes overthink what we are watching/listening to, but sometimes a stage effect or bit of business draws attention too much to itself, which ends up making it too business-y and not nearly as effective.


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