Due to coronavirus, Met Opera free streams old productions every night. This week is Wagner week and it started with the best work of Wagner: Tristan und Isolde..
When it comes to more challenging works like Wagner, Berg and modern pieces, Met Opera usually uses its power of staging. As an opera house who relies on new customers and popular pieces, they try to make heavier pieces easier to watch as opposed to Vienna State Opera. I expected nothing less when it comes to Tristan und Isolde. Since the work has philosophical background, it gives a space for the director to make story clearer or underline some feature of it.
Wagner’s signature was the leitmotifs. There are lots of leitmotifs in the opera; a recurring theme that is associated with a certain feeling, character etc. So singers may sing one thing, but if you follow the orchestral score, it may say another story since it reflects the true feelings of the characters as well as the future.
Based on Schopenhauer’s pessimism of never satisfied needs and desires; opera opens with an tritone and doesn’t resolve for four hours, until the very end. Tristan und Isolde can only find resolution in death. There’s a whole act of talking about night and light. You cannot separate these wonderful beliefs from the essence of the opera.
That being said, let’s see how Mariusz Trelinski’s staging respected that. In this production, Trelinsky made an interesting and very bold choice of bringing a very minor point of the story to the center: suicide of Tristan’s father. During the prelude, we saw a radar signal rotating. The visual later switched to black and white waves, a soldier holding his son, a gun, a lighter.. This video sequence made the most powerful part of the score merely an accompaniment and audiences weren’t allowed to swipe into their own imagination. This sequence repeated in the each act. This turns out to be the image of Tristan’s father. Since you won’t be getting this during the prelude -because why would you-, Trelinski needs to repeat it in each act. Only when you saw Tristan dreaming about his father and the setting suddenly changed into a burnt house with his father’s uniform, we understood.
In Act 1; everything was on solid grounds. The stage was a ship that has 9 different compartments. The bottom was where Isolde was hold, at the background black and white waves were playing on the video. The usage of places and light was the outstanding aspect of this production. When Isolde tells her story, suddenly Tristan’s room was lid. This rooms used very cleverly to enhance the feelings of other characters. There were spying cameras at Isolde’s sections, and we saw Tristan watching her touched by her story. Since he offered Isolde a knife to kill him, we know that he’s also moved and disturbed by the story but somehow director choose to make him a bad guy by making him kill a random guy in the ship.
Act 1 has its contributions to the score and text, but in Act 2 it started to fall apart. The meeting point of Tristan and Isolde is again the deck of a ship. Why would they choose to meet in a ship? They talked about light and night at the deck. When Brandade's -portrayed wonderfully by Ekaterina Gubanova- off stage warning started, we saw a clip similar to eclipse. The couple than went to downstairs, something like a storage room that has chemical waste bins around. Heated by the soldiers of King Marke (who’a a general, not a king), when Tristan talks to Isolde, he moves to a corner where Isolde seats, other characters disappear, Tristan talks to Isolde in his dreams. Than suddenly the stage is lid and all other characters are in position, we turned to reality. This was a powerful visualisation.
In Act 3, Tristan is in a dark hospital room. A child wonders around, plays with lighter. When he remembers his father’s death, again with a powerful lighting we see him at the yard of a burnt house suddenly. Here the child continues to wonder with a bloody white jacket. The child is Tristan’s childhood. But there’s also a bloody white uniformed person appears time to time. In first act, I assumed it was Isolde’s fiance. I am not sure if he supposed to be Tristan’s father. Either way, it doesn’t contribute anything to the score.
As you noticed, Isolde, their incapability to unite in anything but death, poison that caused all this events remained at the background. However, the most disturbing thing about this production that Tristan and Isolde couldn’t unite in their death. They died separately in the different corners of the stage.
Nina Stemme was a powerful Isolde, her strong voice was enough to disguise her minimal facial acting. Stuart Skelton’s Tristan had a soft timbre but clearly exhausted through the end. Simon Rattle who followed Mahler’s markings while studying, enriched the score and brought the space for the listeners.