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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Tristan und Isolde

The Met opens its season with Wagner's transcendental tragedy.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Nina Stemme is Isolde in the Met's new production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
It's love and death on the high seas. The 2016 Met season is set to open with this new nautical staging of Tristan und Isolde starring Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton as Wagner's star-crossed lovers.

What is Tristan und Isolde?
This three-act opera is Wagner's ultimate expression and exploration of the idea of unfulfilled love. It is a simple story. Isolde (Nina Stemme) is a medieval princess betrothed to King Marke (René Pape). On the way to her wedding, she falls in love with Tristan, a knight and the king's nephew. All ends in tragedy but the music tells you that the lovers are reunited in another, better world.

Who's in the cast?
Isolde will by sung by the brilliant Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. Her Tristan is heldentenor Stuart Skelton. Marke will be sung by René Pape, one of the greatest Wagner basses in the world. The supporting cast includes Evgeny Nikitin and Ekaterina Gubanova. Most compelling of all: Sir Simon Rattle conducts all the performances save the last two, which will be led by Ascher Fisch.

Why should I go see this opera?
Tristan is not really a "starter" opera, but it is one that you will never forget: a profound, deep exploration of romantic love. Wagner wrote it as an expression of his frustrated love for Mathilde Wesendonck (the wife of his patron) and he poured everything he knew about romantic torment into three long acts. In the process, he rewrote the rule book for chromaticism vs. diatonic music and changed the game for every composer that followed in his path. It is a work of the highest genius.

How's the production?
This new production designed by Mariusz Trelinski updates the action of the show to modern dress, although the story of these two lovers is effectively timeless. Mr. Trelinski's staging is a shared effort by the Met, the Baden-Baden Festival, the Polish National Opera and NCPA Beijing. It reimagines the lovers' journey toward each other aboard a modern-day military ship, complete with radar, video readouts and at one point, a display of the Northern Lights. Tristan sings the third act from a hospital ward. It should be interesting, to say the least.

When does the show open?
Tristan und Isolde opens the Metropolitan Opera's 2016-17 season with a special gala performance that will be simulcast live in Times Square starting at 5pm. Regular (non-gala) performances start Sept. 30. The MET Live in HD broadcast will be Oct. 8 at 1pm. The opera's last performance is Oct 27.

Where do I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Which recording should I buy?
Here are a couple of quick capsule recommendations for Tristan. You can read (a lot) more about this opera on the Superconductor Audio Guide. 

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra cond. Karl Böhm (DG/Philips 1966)
A live recording that captures the energy of Bayreuth in full bloom, this recording squares off the titanic talents of heldentenor Wolfgang Windgassen and soprano Birgit Nilsson. She is not an Isolde to be messed with, but delivers tenderness in the love scene and the Liebestod as well as laser-like precision in the harrowing Act I monologue. A classic.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (EMI/WBC 1972)
This might be von Karajan's best Wagner recording, a surging, swelling performance that drips with sensuality and orchestral color. He has a great pair of leads with Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers delivering a harrowing third act and soprano Helga Dernesch glorious in the role of Isolde.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Carlos Kleiber (DG 1979)
Carlos Kleiber was one of the most idiosyncratic conductors of the 20th century, and it's not surprising that his studio Tristan from Dresden features unusual casting. Tenor René Kollo and soprano Margaret Price make the listener feel the intimacy and closeness between the lovers, especially in the glorious darkness of the second act. Brigitte Fassbaender, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Kurt Moll are luxuries in the supporting roles.

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