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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Opera Review: Spirits of the Vasty Deep

The Metropolitan Opera opens with Tristan und Isolde.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme are Tristan und Isolde in the Met's new staging.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.

Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is the most demanding of operas. The two leading parts demand tenacious singers who can stay the course for five hours of demanding music. The still-revolutionary score demands a conductor who can navigate its wide, intimidating oceans of chromatic sound, music that changed the way people heard music when the work premiered. Finally, the simple, intimate story demands a setting that makes sense of Wagner's concept: undying, illicit love that transcends marriage, law, life and finally, death. The Metropolitan Opera's new production, launched last night in a special 5pm premiere performance, had all these qualities and more.

Let's start with the singers. Tenor Stuart Skelton had both the acting and vocal ability to sing Tristan, one of the three most demanding tenor roles in the German repertory. As the doomed knight, he possessed a streak of dour fatalism in the first act, bright vocal colors and warm passion in the long Act II duet with Isolde, and wild, crazed energy as the lovers are confronted by King Marke. In the third act, he dominated completely as the wounded, raving Tristan. Fever, suffering and unsatisfied yearning have never been better served.

His intensity was matched by Nina Stemme, who went from a brittle, icy presence in the first act to a warm and loving woman, slightly crazed by her passion for Tristan. At the moment when the love potion takes hold, they sang "Tristan!" "Isolde!" "Geliebter!" Both singers opened their registers and allowed them to bloom, as if they were waiting for that moment to show their true selves. She matched Mr. Skelton perfectly in the long Act II duet, their voices twining and twinning in one of Wagner's few passages for paired tenor and soprano. Her Liebestod was staged to follow her character's suicide, sitting next to Tristan in their shared afterlife. Her singing was simply radiant.

Ekaterina Gubanova excelled as Brangäne, Isolde's handmaiden. She shared her mistress' plight, nervously smoking cigarettes and fiddling with potion bottles. That anxiety filled her Act II solo, the "watch song" delivered offstage as another set of visuals played on the big screen, leaving the lovers' amorous clench to the audience's imagination. Evgeny Nikitin went from brutish to compassionate as Kurwenal, Tristan's burly right hand. René Pape remains ideal as King Marke, both dignified and heartbroken in his "Mir dies?" address to Tristan. Two tenors made house debuts in the small roles of Melot and the Shepherd, and young Jonathan O'Reilly played Tristan as a child in the opera's most hallucinatory sequence.

The singers were matched and paced by Sir Simon Rattle. The British conductor is an infrequent visitor to the Met, and it is to his credit that he produced an unfamiliar, transparent sound from the Met pit. Rich in detail, this was a performance that explored the limpid qualities of this seething, boiling music, emphasizing the intimacy of the drama over the bombast that is so often associated with Wagner. Sir Simon was at his finest in the prelude to each act, each accompanied by an electric green radar sweep and a grim black-and-white film. Like Wagner's own leitmotifs, the projections (by Bartek Marcias) repeated and flowed into each other, adding to the show's effect.

Mariusz Trelinski's production is modern, bleak, realistic and harrowing. The first two acts are moved to a modern warship, pushing through fog and heavy seas. A split-level set with a series of small chambers emphasized the claustrophobic nature of shipboard life, with Boris Kudlicka's design making the audience feel like intruders. Tristan and Isolde met in a lower decks stateroom. They wrestled over a handgun before drinking their toast from functional shipboard coffee mugs. King Marke and posse arrived in a helicopter landing on the ship's deck, indicated by sodium lights and extras with glowing batons. The second act opened with a rendezvous on the ship's bridge and a romantic stroll down to the ship's hold, where the lovers were found out.

The third act was phantasmagorical, set in Tristan's hospital bed in Kareol, with the walls dissolving into a landscape of the knight's memories. At one point, hospital bed and IV were replaced by a small, burnt-out shack. Mr. Skelton moved gingerly through this, haunted by Mr. O'Reilly as his younger self. The child burned down the house. When Marke arrived, he carried flowers, a useless but very human gesture. The final tableau, of the lovers on a bench before a swirling backdrop, was a welcome nod to Wieland Wagner's 1960s Bayreuth staging, a wonderful and appropriate homage to that great Tristan from fifty years before.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.