Love and Death at the Met

October 1, 2016 2:45 pm Last Updated: October 2, 2016 4:09 pm

NEW YORK—The Metropolitan Opera opened its fall season with a new production of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” With about four hours of music, the work presents an immense challenge for its lead characters and the orchestra. On this occasion, they came through with distinction, but director Mariusz Trelinski seems intent on draining out the color of the opera. 

The action begins with Irish princess Isolde and her companion Brangäne imprisoned on a military ship headed for Cornwall in southwestern England. Tristan had killed Isolde’s fiancé in battle, and he is now bringing her to wed his foster father, King Marke.

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme is the pre-eminent Isolde of our time.

Isolde had developed a crush on Tristan and saved his life after he was wounded. Now he is intent on doing his duty and rebuffs her advances.

Isolde doesn’t take rejection well and asks Brangäne to supply poison so she can do away with Tristan. He drinks from the vial and then Isolde does the same. However, what they imbibe is actually a love potion.

A scene from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
A scene from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” (Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

One plot hole (for which Wagner is responsible since he wrote the libretto in addition to the music) is the question of why Brangäne switched the bottles. Since Isolde had already been promised to Marke, stirring up the passions of the two would inevitably lead to their deaths, or at least his. Slipping them a placebo would have made more sense.

Act 2 begins with Tristan and Isolde carrying on under cover of night while the king is away. The lovers’ talk moves from expressions of passion to thoughts of suicide.

Marke, having been alerted to his bride’s unfaithfulness, turns up and castigates his foster son. Tristan tries to escape with his beloved but he is wounded and loses consciousness.

The third act opens with Tristan delirious in a hospital bed. His life flashes before his eyes, including the death of his parents. He has one more visit from Isolde and dies in her arms.

Stuart Skelton as Tristan in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
A scene from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” (Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

Now that his foster son is dead, Marke expresses newfound respect for him. He is still willing to take back Isolde, but she rapturously sings about her love for Tristan and then dies.

While the plot is lumpy, Wagner’s music is a cohesive, overwhelmingly ecstatic expression of erotic love. The orchestra plays a crucial role, and here is under the inspired conducting of Sir Simon Rattle. Pedro R. Díaz’s English horn solos merit special commendation.

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme is the pre-eminent Isolde of our time. She has recorded the role twice on CD and once on DVD, and won the Olivier Award for best role interpretation in 2010 when she played Isolde at the Royal Opera House in London.

She is still phenomenal in the part. How she manages to perform her most famous aria, the “Liebestod” (Love Death), with such beauty after nearly four hours of singing on stage is a mystery.

René Pape as King Marke and Stuart Skelton as Tristan in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
(L–R) René Pape as King Marke and Stuart Skelton as Tristan in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. (Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

Her Tristan, Australian tenor Stuart Skelton is a true heldentenor, a rare breed. He is a bear of a fellow with a bit of resemblance to James Corden. He managed this taxing role with strong vocalism and impassioned acting.    

Rich-toned German bass René Pape (looking rather dashing in a white military uniform) made an unusually sympathetic King Marke.

The rest of the cast was also excellent: Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova acted and sang with real feeling as Brangäne, and bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin was a fine Kurwenal, Tristan’s friend, who sits by his hospital bed.

Director Mariusz Trelinski moves the action from medieval times to the modern era, which gives the production a film noir look. It resembles a black-and-white movie except when Isolde takes off her coat to reveal a red dress.

Stuart Skelton as Tristan in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
Stuart Skelton, on the floor, as Tristan in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” (Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

The video projections by Bartek Macias depict sea waves and swirling clouds as well as a large nautical compass. Designer Boris Kudlicka set the first act in a modern multilevel battleship. Having the singers go up and down a staircase on the vessel seems a waste of the singers’ energy.

The addition of a little boy (non-singing) as young Tristan in the last act is an unsettling touch, as is having Isolde cutting her wrist on stage.

Despite the production’s visual failings, Wagner’s score still delivers its punch with Rattle at the podium and Stemme and Skelton singing their hearts out.

The Met: Live in HD will be at local movie theaters on Oct. 8.

‘Tristan und Isolde’
Metropolitan Opera House
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org
Running Time: 4 hours, 50 minutes
Closes: Oct. 27

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.