Tristan und Isolde: Catastrophic Misfire in the Met’s Season Opener

The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2016-2017 season with the Wagnerian favorite, Tristan und Isolde. Directed by Mariusz Trelinski, it featured a strong cast including Nina Stemme as Isolde, Stuart Skelton as Tristan, and Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne. With the orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, this had all the makings of a great production.

Unfortunately, a relentless onslaught of truly bizarre staging torpedoed it from beginning to end. It was set on a modern naval vessel, but it was difficult to figure out just what sort of crew this was supposed to be. Tristan was dressed in a formal naval uniform, complete with emblems of rank and a chest full of ribbons. The rest of the crew, on the other hand, were a motley assortment of thugs who looked like they’d be far more at home smuggling heroin than escorting the king’s intended bride. There was certainly nothing resembling military discipline on board. The sailors lost no opportunity to leer at the women and menace them. One went so far as to smell some of Isolde’s lingerie before stealing it. These goons were supposed to be an honor guard?

Though the setting was modern, very little else was altered or updated to fit. It was jarring to listen to performers sing about magic and potions while surrounded by steel bulkheads and stairways. This could have been forgiven if that had been as far as it went. One could imagine an alternate universe where modern technology coexisted with supernatural power. It’s a fairly common staple of recent fiction. Sadly, this production was just getting started.

The one updated item was Tristan’s weapon. Instead of a sword, he carried a semiautomatic pistol. And here’s where I started to really wonder if the guy who staged this production actually read the story. Pivotal to Wagner’s plot is the idea that Tristan fought Isolde’s ex-fiance Morold and killed him in battle, but was mortally wounded himself. Tristan’s friends send Morold’s head back to Ireland and set Tristan adrift on a boat. He drifts over to Ireland and is eventually found by Isolde. Not knowing who he is at first, she tends his wounds and heals him. Then she finds out and gets pissed.

In this production, though, we were shown a half-naked Morold tied to a chair and blindfolded. Instead of engaging in an epic fight, Tristan just put the pistol to Morold’s head and executed him. Not exactly heroic of him. But how the heck was Tristan injured? Did he slip with the knife while he was cutting off Morold’s head and impale himself? And how did Isolde figure out who Tristan was? She claimed she discovered a sliver of metal lodged in Morold’s head that matched a sliver missing from Tristan’s weapon. But Tristan shot the guy. What kind of sliver of metal did Isolde find? Did she dig the bullet out of her dead fiancé’s skull? Was she running a ballistics lab?

The second act took place on the ship’s bridge and in the hold. We were introduced to Tristan’s treacherous friend, Melot, and to King Marke. Apparently in this realm, royalty wear formal white military uniforms. Other than the titular characters proclaiming their undying love for one another while cavorting in a hold full of toxic waste containers, nothing too outlandish happened, and it was easy to let the scenery slide and simply enjoy the music. René Pape’s outstanding performance as King Marke was probably the highlight of this act.

The third act got weird again. It was set in a hospital room, referred to as Tristan’s castle. Ok, maybe Tristan had an infirmary in his castle, but the stage was dominated by a huge and distracting monitor showing an ECG and what looked like a pulse oximeter tracing. Amazing bit of technology, since there were no visible monitors whatsoever on Tristan. Guess it was just more magic. When King Marke showed up, he had traded his white military uniform for a long black leather coat with, kid you not, epaulettes sewn onto the shoulders He looked for all the world like one of those cartoon generals who has epaulettes on every conceivable article of clothing, including his pajamas and bathrobe.

And this may just be a quibble, but in the climactic scene where Isolde committed suicide, she hunted around and found a barber’s straight razor. Are you kidding me? She’s in a hospital room. Hospitals have so many sharp objects they need special protocols to deal with them. And she came up with a straight razor. Would a scalpel have been so hard?

I could go on but you get the idea. One bizarre thing after another. And when there was nothing weird happening on stage, there was some incomprehensible CGI projected above it.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that it was all bad, though. The orchestra was outstanding, and despite the antics on stage, the performers all sang their parts beautifully. While watching was painful, listening was a delight.

Overall rating: 7/10

I did not travel to New York to see this production, in case you were wondering. I saw it in a movie theater. The Metropolitan Opera has been transmitting some of their performances live in HD to movie theaters for the past 10 years or so. How does this experience compare to sitting in a grand hall and seeing the performance on stage? I will answer this question in another post soon.

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