Sunday, October 9, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "The Sublime and the Ridiculous" (on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde)

the sublime and the ridiculous
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Wagner (writer and composer) Tristan und Isolde / Live H.D. broadcast from the New York Metropolitan Opera on October 8, 2016 / I attended with Howard Fox

The first High Definition production of the new Metropolitan Opera season, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is sublime, with outstanding performances by the great soprano Nina Stemme, Stuart Nelson (singing only his second Tristan), Ekaterina Gubanova as the intruding servant Brangäne, René Pape as King Marke, Evegeny Nikitin, singing the smaller role of Tristan’s loyal allay Kurwenal, and, perhaps most importantly, Simon Rattle conducting of the Met’s great orchestra.

       Yet this version of Tristan und Isolde is often equally leaden and confusing through production director Mariusz Trebliński’s decision to set the opera on a war ship in Act One, and upon another ship and in that ship’s enormous lower-deck storeroom filled with large containers of what appear to be weapons all stamped with “Warning” in Act Two. The return to Tristan’s childhood home, where Kurwenal has set up like a hospital room, where other portions of the home, having undergone a fire years earlier, appear ready to collapse, is nearly inexplicable, particularly when Tristan retrieves his father’s military jacket from the floor of a nearly creosote leaden room.

      On top of this, set designer Boris Kudlička’s and projection designer Bartek Macias’ sets and projections sometimes clumsily recreated the story of the young Tristan’s loss of his mother (in child-birth) and father, along with the quite unexplained torching of their home and the woods around, further making murky what is generally a fairly simple tale of love, consuming desire, death, and transfiguration.
      Yes, these various elements do keep our eyes quite busy during the opera’s many long, static passages; and certainly they help to make clear that part of Tristan’s determination to find love—first in his obedience of and service to the King of Cornwall and, later, in his love of Isolde—has a great deal to do with his being an orphan. The worlds of Tristan’s Brittany, Isolde’s Ireland, and Marke’s Cornwall, moreover, obviously are structures of military might achieved through violence—just the kind of world in which Wagner generally locates his operas. Everyone here is a loyal warrior or a traitor, with heroes being awarded and traitors (i.e, the other side) being destroyed.

       But these things are fairly obvious within the long narrative passages Tristan and Isolde recount throughout the opera, and hardly need be reasserted with such heavy handed imagery and metaphorical projections.
       At moments, particularly the long, long love duet in Act II, the projections of clouds and spinning planets truly do give rise to the kind of splendiferous visions being experienced by the loving couple, particularly, as Brangäne interrupts their “maddened” lovemaking with her beautiful off-stage song of warning—a moment, as Rattle himself described it, of near transcendence. But, for the most part, the maritime imagery and weapon’s room storage scenes seemed in opposition to the lovers’ Schopenhauerian ruminations about day/death and night/love. The fact that their verbal love play verges, in itself, on gobbledygook is certainly reiterated by the drab surroundings of this production.

       And finally, the metaphorical ghosts of both Tristan’s child-self and his dead father, particularly in Act Three—although again much-needed visual elements while Tristan lies dying—created more murkiness than clarity. It’s clear that Tristan is being visited by the ghosts of the past, but a child flashing the light of a cigarette-lighter into the dying man’s eyes seems nearly ludicrous—if not dangerous.
      As in all successful renditions of this great opera, moreover, any singer who credibly endures it is a wonder. Here, despite my cavils, this production, particularly given Rattle’s languid and highly nuanced musical direction, along with Stemme’s beautifully balanced and modulated singing and acting, will be recognized as one of the greatest of this opera’s performances. 
      Finally, even if by slashing her wrists, Isolde doesn’t quite go “gently into that good night,” it allows her to represent her “Liebestod” as a gradual transformation of worlds through the gradual loss of blood, making Marke’s and Brangäne’s reentries, once again, simple intrusions on the inseparable lover’s lives.  In Tristan’s and Isolde’s love there is no room for others, not even room for living.

Los Angeles, October 9, 2016

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