Monday, October 10, 2016

Tristan und Isolde in HD – I love you so much I could die!

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme as Tristan und Isolde
This post/review of the Met in HD performance of Tristan und Isolde is a slightly expanded (and better proof-read) version of a comment I posted at The Earworm's review of last Monday night's performance. 

I enjoyed the Met broadcast on Saturday. I have to confess it’s my first time sitting straight through Tristan und Isolde; and I found myself drifting a bit during Act 3. That said, I confirmed my conviction that you really just need to “give in” to Wagner’s pace; let time stand still, as it were; and the piece doesn’t seem quite as long as it really is.

All of the singing was glorious; but I wished for better acting from Tristan and Kurwenal (and less barkiness from K). I find I have a tendency to close my eyes during these broadcasts, not because I don't want to see the scenery or the singer but because it allows me to wallow in the sheer sound of both voice and orchestra! Nina Stemme...well, she's awesome; I do need to open my eyes when she sings, because she also is an engaging actor. Stewart Skelton and Ekaterina Gubanova also sang beautifully; and of course René Pape is in a class of his own as King Marke. Really, everyone sang well. 

I was not bothered by the updated setting, though the set was nothing if not dreary. For me, the cargo ship setting enhanced the feeling of Isolde being kidnapped. The sailors menacing the women was creepy but appropriate. A little part of me wanted Isolde to be a bit dressier; but, her dress and demeanor accentuated the “captive” aspect.

By Act III, I was finding the projections annoying (I was going to say pretentious, but that doesn’t seem quite the right word.) Having read several reviews, I already knew we were going for Tristan’s father issues. However, I think that took away from the central theme of Transcendent love and put Isolde in the background. Did Tristan need to die for love because he never knew his parents? If I were taking the father-issue angle, I would explore Tristan’s relationship with Uncle Marke—his father figure—and why, after already falling in love with Isolde when she healed him, did Tristan insist on marrying her to his uncle instead of keeping her for himself. Now THAT’s an angle

I was admittedly restless during Act III, but I also was distracted by T’s stumbling around the set; I found myself worrying more about the singer’s well being and less about Tristan’s (back)story. I like Marthaler’s* version better here, where T sings most of the scene from bed… gets up; stumbles a bit; falls; and sings the rest from the floor. (Speaking of worrying about the people on stage, the kid with the lighter made me very nervous, too! I really need to try to ignore the “stagecraft” and just enjoy the show!)

Finally, if I were directing, and I felt Isolde must do herself in rather than dying simply because Tristan died, I’d have her drink that Todestrank instead of slicing her wrist. Although there was something shared and poetic about both lovers basically bleeding to death, it sort of diminished the whole Liebestod concept for me. “I love you so much that I died” is a bit different than” I love you so much that I killed myself.” At least I think so, not having personal experience with either.

So, I don’t think I’ll buy the DVD (though I'll probably watch it again if/when PBS broadcasts it); but I am glad I got to experience the full Tristan Experience. Oh, and the intermission features: While I could live happily ever after without ever hearing any more from P. Gelb, I think having Deborah Voigt host was an inspiration. I could have spent a lot more time listening to her chat with Sir Simon; I postponed a restroom break to listen to Rene Pape’s interview**; and the Isolde-on-Isolde chat was fascinating. I’d love to see/hear DV and NS sit and talk Isolde when they can both relax and one of them doesn’t have to get ready to go back on stage.

*Actually there is a lot to like (and much to be annoyed by) in the Marthaler/Bayreuth production. I must review that soon.
**opera-going tip: back off on the coffee intake before a performance of T&I–or most any opera, really…


  1. Yes! I think it was 50-50 the kid was going to stumble on the bed and land right on Tristan's balls. i too came to see the projections as somewhat distracting. If I ran the zoo, for prelude 1 I would just darken the theater completely and project the stars above, let the music do the work. I have been playing recordings of the opera since Saturday. Can't get the music out of my head which I am happy for.

    1. I hear ya--on both points! (And Welcome to my Blog!!0

      I listened to several recordings and watched one and a half DVDs in prep for the broadcast, and I have re-listened to most of the opera again since Saturday.

      Re "young Tristan" with the lighter: aside from hoping he did not set anything or anyone on fire, I also worried about his falling. Sometimes a stage effect or bit of business can be too business-y and not nearly as effective--simply because it draws too much attention to itself.

      In relation to that, I will share two tweets from the weekend. I follow soprano Molly Simoneau (@operarocksme) on Twitter. She has a great sense of humor. After seeing the HD broadcast, she imagined part of the rehearsal process:

      [Mariusz] Treliński: so we'll have a very small child crawl on top of you, light a cigarette liter and hold it very close to ur face

      Stuart Skelton: that sounds like a very good and safe idea that I am not worried about at all

  2. why, after already falling in love with Isolde when she healed him, did Tristan insist on marrying her to his uncle instead of keeping her for himself.

    “I love you so much that I died” is a bit different than” I love you so much that I killed myself.”

    So whilst I'm by no stretch a Wagner aficionado, I have thought about T & I as characters a bit because a strangely T & I alluding murder-suicide happened in my sleepy hometown about 10 years back when I was actually living there. That was the most out there thing to have taken place there in ages (if you don't count bear maulings).

    I think the Romantic ethos is quite masochistic, so of course he would not allow a happy ending where boy meets girl, they fall in love and live happily ever after. It also works with the Medieval courtly love thing, where they used to pine for women married to other people and thought they were really cool for doing that ;-) In essence, love needs suffering and the more love, the more suffering, especially when she's married to the primary authority figure.

    Now having thought about the two kids who decided to kill themselves and who did not leave a note explaining that's just what happens if you watch T & I backwards ;-) I kept thinking about it for years, trying to figure out what the hell could've gone through their minds.

    Eventually I settled on the idea (which might be bollocks) that "I love you so much that I killed myself" is a very literal attempt at keeping the sublime moment forever (because we all know even the most tumultuous romances cool off eventually - though for 20 year olds to be so self aware is a bit surprising). So here, making it a decision rather than a natural occurrence (ie, something out of their control) is supposed to empower them. Also in T & I's case there could be some guilt mixed in (but that would depend on the feel of the rest of the production).

    btw, I really like your idea of exploring the father figure thing between T and Marke.

    1. dehggial,
      Sorry for the delay in reacting to your comments. I think the more love = more suffering Romantic/Medieval ethos is a good point. Also (echoing what I just wrote in response to Lucy) it’s good to remember that T&I are not supposed to be real people in the first place (actually no one in an opera is really real—maybe we work too hard to humanize our favorite opera characters? Nahh!)

      I also think about how intense first love is—especially at a young age (though I don’t know how old T&I are supposed to be). The first love will be my only love and if I lose my first love I might as well die.

      Another (slightly random) thought is that Isolde already tried to kill them both—she may have thought better of it; or she may have realized (after Tristan got stabbed) that it was still a good idea.
      Finally, I am not sure how to justify this completely, since she dies after him; BUT I think maybe Isolde doesn’t exist outside of Tristan’s mind/soul. She may be an “ideal” figure in Tristan’s mind, helping him to work through his issues with his own father as well as with Uncle Marke. I think this even more so, since Lucy elaborated on the difficult (to Tristan, anyway) relationship of Marke, the Decent Human and Tristan, the Terrible Horrible Guilty Person (at least in his own mind). All of that was to say that how Isolde dies may be somewhat moot if we see her as the instrument for Tristan’s healing.

      On the other hand, I still like the idea of refocusing on Isolde. She is portrayed as a kind of sorceress—magic potions and all (and at least in the Marthaler production, controlling the lighting). Maybe the whole story is her getting revenge on Tristan for betraying and kidnapping her. She returns in Act III and thinks, “You know, killing him (and myself) was really the right idea all along. He’s almost dead, so let’s go with that!”

      P.S. I also mean to add to my response to Lucy, that if the DVD were to include more extended discussions with Sir Simon and between DV and NS, I would seriously consider buying it, even if I never watched the opera itself! Although with all this discussion, I am kind of hoping for an opportunity to see this production again.

  3. I know I'm entering the discussion two weeks late, but it's a really interesting discussion that I couldn't resist joining. :) Firstly, I vociferously second @dehggial's comments about the masochism of courtly love and high Romanticism. The point about T&I's love being socially subversive is one that I think this (and most productions) could have done even more to bring out.

    Taking up the interesting question of Marke and Tristan's father issues, I think they might be related to the kid with the lighter (sorry.) It always feels a bit of a stretch (to me) to try to make any of these characters' motivations too simply human, relatively untouched by conscious philosophizing. That said: I took Tristan's memories, hallucinations, and absent-minded/fascinated play with the lighter to allude for a childhood tragedy for which he feels himself responsible. So he adores his dad, his dad may or may not die in a fire which T started (deliberately or not, but certainly not maliciously; he was what, 7? maybe his Schopenhauerian death wish started young) and then his uncle takes him in. And Marke, because he is a Decent Human and Tristan is a traumatized kid, loves him and nurtures him and helps him mature and does not treat him like the Terrible Horrible Guilty person T probably feels he is. So when T gets a chance to lift a burden of grief from Marke by making this marriage, bingo! Yes, he's already in love with her, but he probably (definitely) doesn't feel he deserves to love someone, let alone someone like Isolde, to say nothing of being loved by her. ...I've made myself even sadder now.

    Lastly (which I should have said first!) thanks as always for the thoughtful take. Maybe an extended DV/NS chat might make it to the DVD?

    1. Hi Lucy!
      There's never an expiry date for comments on my blog. (RnR is always open!!) I always enjoy keeping the conversation going. In fact, one of the reasons I started a blog was because I enjoyed interacting on other people's blogs, particularly the Earworm and John's Opera ramblings (whom I consider my blog "parents".) Meanwhile, speaking of two weeks, I realize I never responded to dehggial, partly because I was having trouble forming a cogent thought (not that that's ever stopped me from writing before!) So...

      First of all, please don't feel sad. Unless you want to, of course...far be it from me to tell you how to feel! :-)

      Second, thanks for your kind comments on my take, and for taking the conversation over to Twitter (I am @Rob_Mus and Lucy is @singingscholar for those who want to see what's going on over there.)

      Third, I agree that it's important to remember that T&I are, in fact, legendary figures, not real people. Your comment about making their motivations too human is pointed. Our questions should be less "who are these people?" and more "what do these people represent?"

      I like the idea (you noted in one tweet) that suggests (or maybe I am just extrapolating) that Brooding Tristan and Action Tristan are, in fact, the same guy, who is reliving/trying to live down the loss of his father, whose death Tristan may (or may not) be responsible for. This makes the whole, "hey Uncle Marke, I found this great bride for you" thing more logical.

      I also wonder (since the opera is called Tristan und Isolde, not Isolde and Tristan) if Tristan should be in stronger focus than Isolde. She is kind of the instrument of out his dilemma/stress/guilt. Meanwhile, the guilt about the fire makes playing with the lighter more logical (though still worrisome in the hands of the child actor.) Also worrisome was remembering that those Scripto lighters did not always light reliably on the first flick; I found myself thinking, "I hope it lights successfully whenever Tristan (younger or older) needs it to." But certain memories and concerns about cigarette lighters are really my issues, not Tristan's!

    2. Excellent, excellent. :) Personally, I thought the production and Skelton did a good job of integrating Brooding!Tristan and Action!Tristan, though perhaps that didn't come across as well in the HD (plus allowing for variety in tastes, etc.)

      About Tristan und Isolde (ach, dieses Wörtlein, und!) I have to say that, on principle, I usually think that the LAST thing any on-stage woman in a nineteenth-century opera needs is to be less of a real character. Could that be an interpretation of Isolde? Yyyyes... but there are SO MANY women characters who exist for the sole purpose of being an instrument for a man to work out his dilemma/stress/guilt/whatever. (This touched a nerve; can you tell?) I can see where you could take this idea from the production; she is so set apart from the monochromatic dystopia, in her scarlet dress and her searing anger. But Wagner goes to such trouble to portray T and I as equals, in vocal time, in orchestral characterization, in the libretto... I confess that I'd be really irked if someone tried to portray her as a mere symbol! Tcherniakov's Onegin worked effectively, I thought, to portray both Symbol!Tatyana and Real!Tatyana but surely that's a difficult act to pull off.

    3. Sorry to touch a nerve (and I should have expected it would—thought it was not my intention!) I do enjoy these sparky (and sometimes sparkling—which is he word I meant to use) conversations.

      I realize my “revenge of Isolde” and Richard W. and Mathilde W. comments are over at Twitter and not here. I think the revenge thing would be cool. Maybe Isolde (instead of Melot) stabs Tristan or facilitates the stabbing. And she could even bring in the other “instrumental” women (by reference at least…I am thinking… “And this is for Lucia; and this is for Manon; and this is for Mimi; and this is for Leonora (all of them)” Tristan betrayed Isolde, but he might have been able to make up for it by stopping by and asking her out, rather than snatching her as a prize for Uncle Marke. Isolde’s first instinct was to kill Tristan and herself, and I think by Act III, even though she’s still under the influence of the love potion, she’s probably thinking she should stick with her first impulse.

      All that said, I do think of Isolde as the “main character” in spite of the “und” in the title—equal to, if not more equal with Tristan. While exploring Tristan’s past is interesting, I think we’re bringing too much humanness to his plight and pulling attention away from Isolde, who really seems to motivate the whole plot. And…what if all of the story is in Isolde’s head. Maybe she kind of lost it when he sailed off after she healed him. Maybe she’s never on a ship at all, but on a personal journey inside her own head.

      And all that said, I’d still like to see Stefan Herheim take Guth’s Wesendonk overlay to the depths (or heights or outer reaches) that he is capable of. Parsifal it; or Queen of Spades it; or la Boheme it—or even Entführung it! Maybe Isolde’s revenge is for all the women RW seduced, played, and/or cheated on.

      P.S. Although I am still a Guth fan, I am getting a little tired of his “doubles” for all his main characters. And I still haven’t forgiven him for replacing the dialogue in Fidelio with spooky electronic sounds.

    4. Far be it from me to lay the sexism of 19th-century opera at your door! And Isolde as agent of vengeance for the maligned and murdered women of Romanticism is a REALLY interesting idea. I suppose that where the shoe pinches, for me (to borrow a phrase from another Wagner opera!) is that, in strong contrast to, say, Siegfried, T&I avoids any suggestion that its protagonists are complementary, mutually destined, or whatever, because they happen to be a man and a woman. Gender affects their social roles and their social agency, but it's conspicuously absent from their relationship... at least, that's my take. Strong yes to a potential Herheim Tristan (which, ironically, autocorrect tried to make "a her/him Tristan..."!)

    5. ..."Gender affects their social roles and their social agency, but it's conspicuously absent from their relationship..."

      Which is why, I think, that productions that de-emphasize physical passion are still (or even more) effective in communicating their relationship. And it also furthers my conviction that I need to stop thinking of them as people and more as ideas.

      And now after all this discourse, it's time (for me) to get back to listening to the music! (And perhaps to rewatch a DVD or two!)


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