My aunt once said that a person who has never gone through psychoanalysis is like a ship adrift, unaware of the forces that pull him in this or that direction. Or maybe she was quoting someone. Director Mariusz Trelinski seems to agree with her: the first image in his new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a radar screen, then a ship in a tempest and then the young Tristan in his father’s arms. The father figure is Tristan’s idée fixe: he would appear on stage in key moments of the opera. His younger self appeared too during the third act, as a vision to his unconscious older self in a hospital. The infamously hard-to-direct monologues are here staged or illustrated by videos – the first of them actually sung in a dreamlike burnt house set on fire by the kid himself. The confusion between reality and fantasy also explains Isolde’s last solo in the end of act II. As Marke’s thugs had escorted her out before the King’s monologue, her acceptance to Tristan’s invitation to the realm of night only happens in his imagination. Here, the whole soul searching happens within Tristan alone.
Although Trelinski’s insights are apt and occasionally thought provoking, I am not sure if I am convinced by the way he stages it. Although the lighting tends to mirror the black and white cinematography of the video projections, the ship’s metallic structures and appliances and also costumes suggest a contemporary setting. We’re in a military vessel, but the war prisoner status of Isolde as a bride against her will feels funny in these circumstances (not to mention magic potions etc). There is also a flashback of Morold’s execution by gunfire. The choice of a control tower for act II offers very little atmosphere for the Liebesnacht, and the aurora borealis showed how frigidly this couple made love to each other. I know, it is rare to see a Tristan where the title couple truly touches each other, but here only fleeting kissing and embracing stood for this fatal passion. This could actually be a dramatic point – how much Tristan really, I mean really, desires Isolde? Is she just a symbol for something else? This line of interpretation was unfortunately not further developed. There is also a curious change of sets in the middle of second act – Tristan and Isolde are exposed by Melot in some sort of fuel storehouse – the purpose of which is mysterious to me: the control tower was probably too small for the closing scene.
Act III predictably opens in a hospital room and, other than the depictions of Tristan’s delirious thoughts, shows an Isolde who takes drugs to get in the mood for her Liebestod. Everything is dark, men have military uniforms and Isolde has a regrettable wig and a dress made from an old curtain.
“The sense of a continuous and consistent beat seemed to focus the whole scale of his performance. The choice of the word ‘focus’ is not accidental – this predilection for forward-movement allied to very precise playing of the orchestra brought about a real sense of horizontal clarity to the proceedings. The care with highlighting the Hauptstimme, connecting the singer’s parts to the ‘singing’ line in the instruments (for illuminating effects in the Liebesnacht) helped further more the sense of continuity.” Those were the words I wrote after listening Sir Simon conduct the second act in concert in Berlin. I have also listened to the broadcast of the complete performance (also in concert with the same tenor) in the Philharmonie and cannot cease to be amazed by the English conductor’s absolute structural understanding, the naturalness with which he builds the performance on thematic framework and how the mastery in his choice of the Hauptstimme in the orchestra is frequently more expressive of the dramatic purpose of each scene than the singing. The broadcast from Berlin shows, however, that the Berlin Philharmonic made a huge difference for the final results: the Berliners’ refulgence and consistency of sound in lower dynamics are a great asset when the cast is not up to the full powers of a Wagnerian orchestra.
If Nina Stemme now shows complete understanding of the text and colors her voice accordingly, her soprano has lost a bit in impetuosity. High notes require extra pushing and the sound may be a little opaque. Hence, her first act lacked punch. As usual, she was more comfortable in the second act, when her tonal warmth and rich high register are most appealing. The Liebestod had a shaky start but ended beautifully in haunting mezza voce. Ekaterina Gubanova is always a reliable Brangäne, even if her voice was too thick this afternoon to float her repeated Habet Acht in act II.
Stuart Skelton is the most dulcet Tristan I’ve probably ever heard, phrasing with Mozartian poise and clarity of diction. But – and this is a big “but” – his voice lacks focus above the passaggio and is produced up there by pushing, with reduced projection. He has enviable stamina, but act 3 was mostly bottled up and strained. As the frenzy required by the libretto is not really in his personality, the whole impression was of witnessing someone performing an impossible task. Evgeny Nikitin, on the other hand, has no problem piercing through a big orchestra. However, I had the impression that his alpha-male natural disposition is not truly comfortable with Kurwenal’s ancillary attitude. To say the truth, the important singing this evening was offered by René Pape, who left nothing to be desired as King Marke. Whenever he sang, even the orchestra sounded better. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Daniel Baremboim, but this afternoon – in spite of the conductor’s paramount knowledge of this score and abilities – engaged my brain, the heart was only occasionally involved.