Tristan Hits the Right Chords

Stemme and Skelton, photo @ Ken Howard

There is nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, that compares to the feeling that washes over the audience when the famous Tristan chord from the very first note five hours ago (!!!) finds its harmonic resolution. For me it's a mixture of relief that it's finally over with euphoria at the beauty of the moment. This is what they mean when they talk about Wagner being a musical genius.

But in between those five hours is an opera that can be challenging to even the most loyal Wagnerian acolyte. The action-packed, fairly condense first act and romantic glow of the second act turn into a long, repetitive dirge in the final act. I'm sick blahblahblah I'm dying blahblahblah loyalty blahblahblah for at least an hour. I don't know how long Tristan actually blathers on about his anguish before he finally expires, but to me it's always an endless wait for Marke and Isolde to arrive and wrap up the show. (In the bad old days, they used to snip large portions of the third act. Legendary heldentenor Lauritz Melchior reportedly never sang an uncut Tristan.)

Tristan und Isolde needs excellent singers who can carry the opera through both its climaxes and frustrating longueurs. The Met's new production of this opera had the singers and musicians to do this opera justice. Nina Stemme, Stuart Skelton, René Pape, Ekaterina Gubanova, and Evgeny Nikitin and conductor Simon Rattle were not perfect, but they all had strong voices that could really sing their roles. There was no shrieking for the moon.

Stemme and Skelton, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Nina Stemme's Elektra last year was occasionally (to these ears) shrill and hard-pressed. Isolde seems to lie in a sweet spot in her current voice. There is some occasionally unsteadiness in sustained notes (to be expected of a dramatic soprano her age) but the warmth of her middle register and her lyrical approach to the role were much appreciated. She was a musically sensitive singer, especially in the second act love duet -- she's one of the few Isoldes I've heard either live or on record to wait for her Tristan to sing before she sings her lines. (The second act duet tends to bring out simultaneous screaming "YOU! ME! YOU! ME!" in both tenor and soprano.) Stemme is a somewhat cool actress, but in this production by Mariusz Trelinski is rather clinical, so it fits. She received a rapturous ovation from the audience after the Liebestod.

Stuart Skelton (Tristan) had a handsome, rather sweet (?!?!) baritenor sound. It wasn't a cavernous heldentenor but Skelton also managed to make it through this killer role without resorting to ugly yelps. His voice had a stentorian ring in the climactic potion drinking scene in Act One, blended beautifully with Stemme's in "O sinke herneider" and in the third act his voice held up remarkably well. Skelton is a rather stolid stage presence, but I don't think they really choose Tristans based on acting ability.

Gubanova brewing up the love potion, photo @ Ken Howard
René Pape's King Marke was hands down the best VOICE onstage last night. He burst onstage and the sheer richness and volume of his voice as he sang Marke monologue (another place where my interest often drifts) was like a shot of Red Bull. Pape's King Marke is a known quantity, a classic portrayal, and the audience went nuts for him. Welcome back René!  Brangäne sings probably the most beautiful music of the evening (or actually, maybe the most beautiful music Wagner ever wrote for the female voice). Her warning is angelic and dreamy and casts a total spell. Ekaterina Gubanova's mezzo has both the lyricism to soar and the sharp cut to cleave over the heavy orchestra. Evgeny Nikitin (Kurwenal) does not have such a rich, sonorous voice but his sensitively acted and sung portrayal gave some humanity to Trelinski's rather clinical final act.

As for the Met orchestra, BRAVO X 1000. They were amazing. Sir Simon Ratttle led the band in an occasionally hard-charging account of the score (those looking for Karajan-like hypnosis would be disappointed) but the Met orchestra sounded like a world class symphony ensemble. The winds, the horns, the brass, the strings, all sounded gorgeous.

First act ship set, photo @ Ken Howard
Now, to the production. And I'm going to be honest and say that I actually didn't pay that much attention to Trelinski's production. I was sitting in the balcony and this is one of those productions that's recessed upstage and with a dark scrim the entire evening. That plus the dim lighting made it hard for some in the balcony to really see the details. I paid attention in the first act -- there was a scrim that indicated the sinking of a naval ship during the prelude. The first act was straightforward -- it was in that naval ship, and Boris Kudlicka designed a set that cleverly allowed for navigation from Isolde's cabin to Tristan's cabin to the ship deck. The love potion is made in test tubes. Isolde is a cool customer in Trelinski's vision. Her longing for Tristan seems more like a power trip than actual lust. I could get behind it.

I sort of tuned out of the production by the end of Act Two. The setting was again the ship, and there were various set rotations and what not, but the darkness of the lighting and my own fatigue (September has been nightmarishly busy professionally) and plus, the dominance of the voices of Stemme, Skelton, Gubanova and Pape meant I was listening more than watching. The third act took place in a hospital room and Trelinski tried to offset the stasis and repetitiveness of Tristan's hallucinations by making Kurwenal a vision that disappears and re-appears and having a childhood flashback with a boy-Tristan-double-mime. Somewhere I could see that Trelinski had a sci-fi time travel concept going on, and that little boy Tristan might or might not have been a pyromaniac? Or his father was? It was confusing, but I really was just waiting for the Liebestod. I don't think it's a bad production, but I just wasn't in a frame of mind to really pay detailed attention to it. Sorry folks. Will try better next time.

I did think that Trelinski ended the opera beautifully. There had been some frantic stage business upon Isolde's arrival (won't give away what it is) but as the final chords descended on the audience, Stemme and Skelton sat together on a bench, and she leaned her head against his shoulder. The lovers were finally in rapturous, post-orgasmic bliss. Curtain falls to the final B major chord. If a regular orgasm is "le petite mort", then the B major climax of Tristan is "Le Grand Mort."


  1. Brangane's Watch song was a highlight for me. Her long sustained phrases produced a score of goosebumps. Her voice is glorious.

    1. Gubanova has been doing great work for awhile. I agree she's one of the highlights of this production.

  2. "vocal splendor" (to quote James Jordan) is what I heard from everyone on stage yesterday at the Sat. matinee. I found the entire performance overwhelmingly beautiful, shattering.


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