Friday, November 04, 2016

Tristan und Isolde, Met HD Broadcast

I had planned to go to NYC for the Met's new productions of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Rossini's Guillaume Tell, both ground-breaking works at the summit of the repertory. (Yes, there's a lot more to Guillaume Tell than the justly-famous overture.) The rest of my life intervened: while I could work from my company's NYC office, I'd have had to cancel jujitsu classes to do that, and for various reasons I'll only be teaching about half the usual number in November. And going for a long weekend seemed like asking for a head cold or worse.

So, to the HD production, which meant that I spent three concerts plus one long opera broadcast sitting on my butt that weekend. Yes, I had tickets to the Salonen/Philharmonia programs, too.

First, a non-musical note. I hope Deborah Voigt, hosting the telecast (but no longer singing at the Met), was reading from a teleprompter when she tossed off before Act II that "Tristan and Isolde are now madly in love because of the love potion." No, Debbie, that isn't the case, and since you've sung the opera, I assume you know it. I wish she'd nixed that line when she saw the script; Isolde's narration, which we heard an hour or so before she said that, makes it completely clear that they are in love before he leaves Ireland. They are released from their guilt and shame and free to be in love because they think they have drunk poison and are going to die.

Musically, I can't fault a darned thing in the Tristan. Simon Rattle, as I'd already learned from writing a review of his recorded-in-concert Rheingold, is a terrific Wagner conductor. He's got a superb sense of pacing and balance, the ebb and flow of the work, all heard to good effect in the HD broadcast. He recorded Das Rheingold with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, a great group, and as you know, the Met Orchestra is also a great group. So you can imagine. It sounded pretty darned good even with the compression and other issues of the broadcast.

Same for the singers. Nina Stemme is a tremendous singer and an overpowering actor; see also her work earlier this year in the Chereau Elektra. I feel she has one tiny vocal flaw, in that her voice speaks rather slowly, which weakens her legato. It's something in her attack - I do not have the vocabulary to describe what is happening technically, but it's certainly audible, especially when everyone around her, as in this cast, sounded vocally smoother.

She was in great company: Stuart Skelton has a beautiful voice, stamina, musical intelligence, and vivid theatricality. I never did a full review of his 2014 SF Symphony Peter Grimes, but it was one of the greatest assumptions I've ever seen, up there with Stemme's Isolde and Elektra and other great performances. He was a moving Tristan and a great match for Stemme here.

I had never heard mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova before, and she is a real find: a beautiful voice and great acting, she made a strong and sympathetic Brangäne. Yes, it should be a soprano role, but who knows when that will ever happen? (The Met did have a soprano in 1999, when Katarina Dalyman sang the role to Jane Eaglen's Isolde.) Evgeny Nikitina was a strong and sympathetic Kurwenal, and I probably don't need to tell you how good René Pape was as King Marke. Yes, he was great.

The production. Well, the production has come in for some criticism, and I consider it deserved.

I have no objections to the cold chill of the warship in Act I or the hospital room of Act III; they both seem appropriately bleak for the mood and the music.

As for Act II, I wish directors would take their production design cue from the score. The libretto is explicit about the setting, which is a garden, at night. Isolde mentions the sound of a brook, and the music is such that you can feel the heat and humidity of a summer night on your skin.

As of now, I've seen this act set in the dead of winter (Zambello, Seattle, 1998), in a torture chamber (K. Wagner, Bayreuth, 2015), an industrial storage space (Trelinski, Met, 2016), and a garden (Dorn, Met, 1999; Mansouri, SF, 1998; Hockney, SF, 2006? 2007?). The Mansouri production, which was shared with DC, was plug-ugly, the Dorn austere, the Hockney cartoonish.

I dunno; I'd like to see something sensuous enough to match the blazing music - of all of these productions, Zambello's gorgeous lovers-in-the-sky setting was the best, despite the snow on the ground (and the on-stage Bragäne.

I am not asking for a literal garden. I am asking for a set that isn't completely at odds with the music.

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