Skelton, Stemme, Gubanova, Wittmoser, Pape, Cooper / Rattle
To be fair from the beginning: if one is to set a single part of this opera properly, it's probably best that it be the closing Liebestod, here rendered with an effective spotlighting of Isolde that was the main absence in the Dieter Dorn production that preceded this one. But the rest of Mariusz Trelinski's show is marred by precisely the opposite aesthetic: an overload of clutter that futhers the show's conceit but gets in the way of actual Wagnerian content. Too bad, since the musical side was quite good.
While the Ring, for example, was the product of many years and aesthetic impulses and looks it, Tristan is all of a piece. Romantic subjectivity and its conflict with more organized existence without are embodied to what was quickly recognized as an ultimate extent: in fact they're turned by Wagner into the organizing poles of the opera's music and story. At the beginning the order, obligation, and achieved peace of the public world is ascendant - though about to be tested by the dark star of Tristan and Isolde's original meeting (likely what is depicted by the prelude's initial bars), where she first chose personal connection over duty - but by the end the disorderly claims of their private selves have brought those all to ruin. This conflict of duty/necessity and love/self is of course a (the?) staple of Romantic opera. But where other operas characterize this rejection of public for private reality as pathetic - if compelling - madness, this one takes it seriously as an alternate perspective, one that grows to envelop audience and characters to the point where it's acknowledged, near the end, by the wronged King Marke himself.
Trelinski and his designers are at their best in the first act: here the conceit - a transposition of the action to a modern naval vessel - gives them room to elaborate impressively on the civilian order of Isolde's well-appointed suite and the harsher military order of the bowels and bridge. The realistic (if anachronistic) detail - unusual in the Gelb era - gives more weight and texture to the public world than productions of Tristan usually provide.
Where Trelinski's show fails is in presenting the other side - "das Wunderreich der Nacht" to which the couple commit themselves in the central love duet. Instead of setting out this second pole of the action, Act II of the production stays doggedly the ship (or is it another ship, belonging to Marke? - who knows). The lovers rendezvous on some sort of glass-paneled control deck and sing their duet in the bowels of the ship, apparently in a hazardous waste storage area. The pile-up of detail doesn't recede at all even at this peak of their solipsistic embrace, and the very simple visual that would have done this (put the stage in darkness except for the singers) is only brought out later on, when Tristan asks Isolde to follow him to this night-land - but only to cast this dialogue as hallucination, Isolde already having been escorted off the ship. By Act III we've at least gotten off the ship ourselves, but the projections continue to insist on the conceit with a recurring sonar/radar display... that fails even to pay off with a climactic blip when Isolde's ship arrives.
One could try coaxing out from all this some deep critique of romantic subjectivity, but it seems to me that a simpler explanation is best: Trelinski just isn't interested in it. He is interested in - and delivers - striking, slick, contemporary, and expensive-looking visuals. The inner story - as in last season's double-bill of Iolanta and Bluebeard's Castle - seems not at all to be registered in its actual sense, and is therefore misunderstood into the movie-drama terms that generate more high-conflict situations and visuals.
(And so Trelinski, last season, turned Bartok and Balazs's melancholy masterpiece - which transforms the Bluebeard story, as Dukas and Maeterlinck less felicitously did before him, to explore the classic postromantic theme of human distance, specifically here the limits of intimacy, possession, and (Judith's!) jealousy - into an abominably imperceptive horror flick. I'm not sure which was worse, the nonsensical nature of this take or its uncritical reception.)
But the history of directors being engaged and re-engaged during Gelb's tenure suggests that Trelinski was hired simply on the basis of visual interest, with success (e.g. Minghella's now decade-old Butterfly) or utter failure (e.g. the Lepage Ring) in capturing the human threads of the opera irrelevant unless the latter (as with that Ring) results in bad publicity and discontent. This show should have had that effect, but perhaps didn't.
The reason was the musical performance: not the best Tristan of the last few decades in any single aspect, but lacking particular weaknesses either. Stuart Skelton, debuting in this run, was the biggest surprise, with a pleasing clear (for a heldentenor) sound that stood up reasonably well through the rigors of the part. Phrasing and interpretation were a bit square, so it was left to Rattle and soprano Nina Stemme (much better supported here than in the misguided Elektra of the spring) to convey most of the sentiment of the show. This they did well, with Stemme (voice unflagging) capping the night by with her own rapt success amidst the only successful part of the production.
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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.