A “Tristan” in the Style of Lars von Trier?

Some Observations about the New Tristan Production at the Met Opera

mettristanimage2This past Thursday, October 13, I attended the new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Met Opera. My expectations were very high and – for the most part – I was not disappointed. Apart from the superb singing and conducting, what struck me the most about this production was its cinematic qualities and its use of association to create a thick web of visual imagery in keeping with the films of Lars von Trier, in particular the 2011 film Melancholia.

Mariusz Trelinski’s staging, which shifts the setting of Wagner’s work to a modern-day warship, was cinematic in its simultaneous use of multiple spaces. For example, in Act One, as Isolde (Nina Stemme) and Brangäne (Ekaterina Gubanova) converse in the ship’s cabin, Tristan (Stuart Skelton) and his men stand on the deck directly above them. Also cinematic is the use of video projections, especially during the Prelude to Act One. These video projections are imaginative in their juxtaposition of abstract shapes and figures, a view from the ship’s periscope, and footage of a solar eclipse. The solar eclipse was a not-so-subtle reference to the planets that collide in Trier’s Melancholia, and the periscope reminded me of the 1981 German epic war film Das Boot. The video projections continue throughout the opera, and Trelinski is very adept at blurring the boundaries between staged action and the video. In general, Trelinski adopts a visual language of quotations, at times to film and elsewhere to other stagings of Tristan. For instance, Act Two is set in a missile storage facility, a curious mixture of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”) and Heiner Müller’s powerful staging of Tristan at Bayreuth in 1993. In Act Two of Müller’s staging, Tristan (Siegfried Jerusalem) and Isolde (Waltraud Meier) walk between rows of steel armor, suggestive of rearmament and imminent catastrophe. The result of Trelinki’s visual language of quotations is that the viewer focuses more on looking for and identifying the allusions and less on the plot.

To summarize my observations about Trelinski’s staging: the production doesn’t have a clear, over-arching concept but rather works through association. By association, I mean the juxtaposition of recurring images (e.g., the ship, the moon, a solar eclipse, warheads) and allusions to film and other stagings. Trelinski’s emphasis on association rather than a single concept or narrative is what makes this new Met production so like Trier’s Melancholia, even more so than the staging’s direct visual references to the film. And this is where staging and film become a matter of personal taste: I don’t think a staging has to have a clear narrative in order to be successful. A juxtaposition of contrasting images allows the viewer to create his or her own meaning of the production.

The singing and conducting were excellent. Sir Simon Rattle’s conducting was always transparent and very supportive of the singers. (Read here about how Rattle consulted Mahler’s score in order to increase the transparency and lightness of the music.) Yet, ultimately, Rattle’s conducting was missing any real bite. I would have preferred more flexibility in his tempos, although he did push forward in the Prelude to Act Two. It was the chance of a lifetime to hear Nina Stemme perform the role of Isolde. Stemme’s sound is fuller and more polished than Waltraud Meier’s, yet I still prefer Meier’s greater emphasis on dramatic delivery. Stuart Skelton is wonderful as Tristan: a full-bodied sound with intelligence and great delivery. It is indeed rare to have a production in which both Tristan and Isolde are so superbly performed.

In conclusion, I highly recommend the Met’s new Tristan. I had high expectations and was not at all disappointed. The staging was a bit gloomy at times, and the lighting was not ideal from my balcony seats. Most likely, the staging works best on the HD movie-theater transmissions, and I look forward to watching the DVD. While this staging was not the best that I have seen, it was both imaginative and thoughtful. If you haven’t seen the production yet, do not miss out on this wonderful experience.