Thursday, October 20, 2016


**** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas

 Any opera company that dares to produce Tristan und Isolde had better be armed with heavy vocal, orchestral and artistic artillery to match operatically what the Prussian army could do militarily. Not to mention a bank account that may surpass the budget of some small countries. Companies like that can be numbered on one hand with New York’s Metropolitan Opera being at the front of the line.

The new production of Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and directed by Mariusz Treliński, is bold, innovative and brilliant. The three critical components of the opera are delivered by the top tier talents in the industry. Sir Simon Rattle, the out-going conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Met orchestra gave a stellar performance of Wagner’s complex and lengthy score.  
 Stuart Skelton as Tristan in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
Soprano Nina Stemme is at the top of the rarified field of Wagnerian singers. As Isolde she displayed vocal power, immense stamina and variation of tone for the gamut of emotions that the captured Irish princess expresses as she is being transported by Tristan, the man who killed her betrothed and whose life she saved. Wagner piles up vocal and emotional demands that only the best singers can tackle and Stemme is clearly one of the best.

Tenor Stuart Skelton is relatively new to the role of Tristan but he has the full vocal prowess and control that it demands. His Tristan is a modern naval officer who falls in love with Isolde, the woman that he is bringing to marry King Marke, the man who has appointed him as his heir. The troubled Tristan has another side, at least in this production: he kills Isolde’s betrothed Morold with his pistol at point blank range while the victim is blind-folded and tied up. That qualifies as a war crime.  A great performance by Skelton.

Mezzo soprano Ekaterina Gubanova sings Brangäne, Isolde’s faithful and sympathetic servant. Gubanova holds her own and gives a first-rate performance in the role. Bass René Pape sings the role of the troubled and betrayed King Marke, the man who gave everything to Tristan but was betrayed by him. Pape has a resonant bass voice that emanates his decency pain and generosity as Marke.    

What gives the production perhaps an even greater “wow” review is the production values brought by Treliński with Set Designer Boris Kudlička, Lighting Designer Marc Heinz and Projection Designer Bartek Macias. 

Nina Stemme as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
What we see first is a radar screen and then a modern battleship navigating a raging ocean (and a perfect image of the raging emotional turmoil of the main characters). Images of the radar screen, the violent waves and the battleship will recur regularly throughout the five-hour performance. The dominant colour is gray.

The characters wear modern clothes. Tristan and Marke are in naval officers’ uniforms. The sailors with the black berets could pass for commandos. They engage in pretty egregious sexual harassment of Brangäne and it may be a directorial whim that we could have done without. Brangäne is dressed tastefully and attractively, whereas Isolde in black slacks and a coat looks like a suburban mother who threw something on so she can take the children to school on time. Both Tristan and Isolde smoke making them, I suppose, just ordinary mortals who will eventually shed their normality and mortality in love/death.    
The stage is divided into a number of sections for the scenes on board the ship. We see Isolde in her suite on the ship which alternates with the iron stairs leading to different decks as well as the helm.

The second act takes place in the hull of the ship where barrels full of explosives are stored. The final scene in Tristan’s castle looks like a hospital room where the hero recalls his past as he dreams or imagines Isolde arriving. In his coma, he sees much more that adds to the brilliant interpretation by Treliński.

The lovers beat death with death. All was caused by the love potion. In death there is reconciliation, redemption and apotheosis through the power of love and Wagner’s music.

Where did the five hours go?
Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner was transmitted Live in HD form the Metropolitan Opera on October 8, 2016 at the Cineplex VIP Cinema, Don Mills Shops, Toronto and other theatres across Canada.  It will be shown again in select theatres on November 12, 14 and 16, 2016. For more information:         

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