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Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme, Tristan und Isolde, Met Opera(Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

"When you hear the music, you will understand." - Richard Wagner 

Even for Wagner, whose operas are among the most complex and challenging in the entire repertoire, Tristan und Isolde is something of a chimera. Part moralist fable, part fever dream, it lacks a coherent plot, is full of unexplained changes, and stretches plausibility to the breaking point. For most of its five-hour length, there is little, if any, action onstage. And, its ultimate message seems to be that love is a curse only resolved by death. 

And yet, Tristan is a bona fide institution, so much so that Monday night's performance at the Metropolitan Opera was the company's 462nd since 1886. And, given that the nearly sold-out house was the 7th of 8 performances this season, Tristan's popularity shows no signs of waning in our attention-addled society. 

The main reason for Tristan's enduring popularity, of course, is the music, which remains some of the most intoxicating and evocative ever written. When Wagner first began thinking about Tristan in 1856, he claimed that the music came to him before he had come up with a scenario. "A melodic thread," he said, "which, though I gladly would have quit, kept spinning on itself." The impulse was so powerful that it caused Wagner to pause work on his monumental Ring cycle - right in the middle of Siegfried - which he wouldn't return to for another 12 years. 

TRIST_1945a(Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

In the two years he spent writing Tristan - followed by six years of failed attempts to stage a work that was widely considered to be "unperformable" - Wagner created something so bold, so new that the entire direction of music was forever changed. Indeed, there are so many astonishing moments in Tristan, it's impossible to recount them all here. There's the famous Prelude which opens the opera, with its shockingly dissonant "Tristan chord." There's the end of Act 2, with its stirring trombone solo punctuated by an all-out orchestra hit. There's the dark, hypnotic prelude that opens Act 3, followed by an extended solo for English horn (played with great sensitivity at the Met by Pedro R. Díaz.) And, of course, there's Isolde's climactic  Liebestod ("Love Death") which ends the opera.

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For as much as there's a discernible plot to Tristan und Isolde, following is a brief synopsis. A warship sailing from Ireland to England carries the Irish princess Isolde, who is to marry King Marke of Cornwall against her will. She's been abducted by the King's nephew and heir, Tristan, who we learn was once nursed back to health by Isolde after he had killed her betrothed, Morold, in battle. Seeking atonement, Isolde confronts Tristan and forces him to share a drink to their "reconciliation" offering him what she believes is a deadly poison. But, unbeknownst to Isolde, her lady-in-waiting, Brangäne, has switched out the poison with a love potion, causing Tristan and Isolde to fall madly in love with each other. Soon thereafter, they are discovered by King Marke and his knight Melot who, in an ensuing struggle, mortally wounds Tristan. Tristan returns to his castle in Brittany, where he's looked after by his companion Kurwenal while undergoing a series of delirious hallucinations. Isolde arrives from England just in time to be reunited with Tristan before he dies in her arms. Soon after, a second ship arrives carrying Brangäne and King Marke, who has learned of the love potion and has come to bless their union, but soon realizes he is too late. Isolde shares her vision of Tristan risen from the dead, after which she collapses on top of him and dies.

When I last saw Tristan at the Met 8 1/2 years ago, the production, while excellent, had been plagued by repeated cancellations by its principal singers, Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt. No such issues on Monday, as both tenor Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and soprano Nina Stemme (Isolde) were present and accounted for, as they had been for all of the previous performances. But, after seven performances, the run seems to have taken its toll: during the punishing 3rd act, Skelton's voice finally began to give out. But Stemme, who is perhaps the leading Isolde of our time, sang with power and conviction throughout, bringing the house down with her overpowering Liebestod. Rounding out the all-star cast were Ekaterina Gubanova (Brangäne), Evegeny Nikitin (Kurwenal), and the incomparable René Pape as King Marke.

In fact, the only new face on Monday was conductor Asher Fisch, replacing Simon Rattle who, after six performances finally had to get back to his other band in Berlin. Fisch, a celebrated Wagnerian, led the superb Met Orchestra in a stirring performance that kept things moving steadily ahead while losing none of the clarity and potency Rattle installed. (Click here to listen to Fisch speak about Tristan in this 2010 video from the Seattle Opera.)

 TRIST_4483a(Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

This new production of Tristan, which opened the Met season on September 26, was directed by Polish film and theater director Mariusz Treliński, with sets by Boris Kudlička and video projections by Bartek Macias. Together, they created a dark, claustrophobic atmosphere, confining the action to boxy rooms stacked on three levels. Treliński places the action during the 1940s, outfitting King Marke and Isolde in leather trenchcoats (designed by Marek Adamski) and replacing Tristan and Melot's swords with handguns. In the most radical departure, Treliński shows Isolde slashing her wrists after Tristan's death, in order to accelerate her own demise. Despite inciting boos on opening night, I found that to be a lot more plausible than the spontaneous "transfiguration" Isolde supposedly undergoes. And, while some of the visuals and supernumeraries felt a bit random,Treliński's production was by and large was successful in conveying the essence of this cryptic, transformative opera.

There is one final performance of Tristan at the Met tomorrow night (Thursday), with Fisch conducting all of the same cast members. Tickets, which begin at $25, are available at the Met box office or online.

More pics on the photo page.