The all-consuming, mystifying love story at the core of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” unfolds against a medieval tale of war between Cornwall and Ireland. Many productions employ imagery of sailors, military conquest and retribution but keep the focus on Wagner’s exploration of love, desire and death.
In the Metropolitan Opera’s audacious new production, which opened the season on Monday night, the director Mariusz Trelinski makes the background story of warring nations explicit, sometimes intrusive. During the great orchestra prelude to Act I, video projections (by Bartek Macias) on a scrim depict an enormous nautical compass and a churning, blackish sea. When the scrim lifts, the stage is filled with an eerily realistic, modern-day, three-decker warship (the set designer is Boris Kudlicka). It looks like a gargantuan maritime dollhouse.
Isolde, the Irish princess who is being transported to Cornwall to marry its king, Marke, is confined to what passes for a stateroom, with a dingy couch and makeshift pantry. The ship is being navigated by Tristan, a noble knight and King Marke’s adopted heir, whom we first see standing on the top deck before various electronic panels and equipment, including surveillance video to check on Isolde.
As Mr. Trelinski has explained in interviews, he sees the ship in “Tristan” as both real and metaphorical. Tristan guides the ship, Mr. Trelinski said, to the “edge of night,” to his own and Isolde’s transcendent deaths. As the opera progresses, the staging becomes increasingly metaphorical, confusingly so.
Still, his concept has intriguing elements and is strongly complemented by the compelling, vulnerable performances he draws from a strong cast, especially the astonishing soprano Nina Stemme as Isolde. And on every step of this Wagnerian trip to the edge of night, the way was led by the conductor Simon Rattle, finally back at the Met after his momentous 2010 company debut in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande.”
Mr. Rattle’s performance of Wagner’s monumental score, some four hours of music, impressively balanced clarity and richness, coolness and intensity, intelligence and impetuosity. The composer’s harmonic language, which ventures into bold, radical chromaticism, came through in rich, full-bodied orchestral sound. Mr. Rattle also brought uncanny transparency to the contrapuntal lines that mingle continuously in the music. Climactic passages crested with sound, and dramatic episodes generated plenty of heat. Still, Mr. Rattle is not one for swelling, emotive passion. Rather, he goes for incisiveness and vehemence.
Last season, Ms. Stemme triumphed in the title role of Strauss’s “Elektra” when the Met presented Patrice Chéreau’s stunning production. Her Isolde is just as outstanding. Her voice has enormous carrying power without any forcing. Gleaming, focused top notes slice through the orchestra. As Isolde went through swings of thwarted fury, yearning and despair, Ms. Stemme altered the colorings of her sound, from steely rawness to melting warmth. And it is not often you hear a Wagnerian soprano who takes care to sing with rhythmic fidelity and crisp diction.
If Isolde is a summit for select dramatic sopranos, Tristan may be an even harder assignment for a heldentenor. This production is lucky to have Stuart Skelton, who gives an honorable and courageous performance. His muscular voice may lack some warmth and ping. But he sings with musical integrity and feeling. And he paced himself impressively during the long, arduous scene in Act III when Tristan, mortally wounded and delirious, back at his ancestral home in Brittany, awaits Isolde. Attended by his loyal servant Kurwenal (the solid bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin), Tristan keeps thinking he sees Isolde’s ship on the horizon, only to be shattered with disappointment, until she finally arrives, too late.
Mr. Trelinski surely deserves some credit for the subtle, effective acting of his cast. But the set designs, especially the warship of Act I, sometimes get in the way, as in the riveting scene when Isolde tells Brangäne, her loyal maid (the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova), the full story of why she dreads marrying King Marke. Isolde pouts on the floor in front of the couch as Brangäne maternally strokes Isolde’s hair. But the intimacy these two artists achieve is undermined because the midtier room they are confined to seems boxy and distant from the audience.
The staging works better later in this act when Tristan agrees to meet Isolde and make an act of atonement by sharing a drink. Mr. Trelinski delves enticingly into one of the mysteries of the opera: What is this potion they drink? Isolde thinks she hates Tristan, who killed her fiancé in battle, then returned in disguise, whereupon Isolde healed Tristan’s wound through her magical arts, only to learn who he really was. Still, the encounter roused feelings of love between them, feelings they must vanquish.
On the ship, Isolde wants to share a drink of poison that will actually kill them. But Brangäne substitutes a love potion. Does it have any actual effect? One interpretation is that by embracing what they think is death, Tristan and Isolde enter Schopenhauer’s realm of love as an impossible yearning that can only be resolved in death. This actually releases their love. Mr. Trelinski has the two singers react to the drink with shock and panic. What have we done? What have we unleashed?
Act II, when Tristan and Isolde meet furtively at night, takes place here in a kind of lookout post that is part of the metaphoric ship. They descend slowly into a dark room full of what looks like fuel tanks and armaments, a dreary space. At the climax of their passion, they are discovered by the henchmen of King Marke, who come with glaring flashlights and kick Tristan almost unconscious. Then the formidable bass René Pape appears as the king, wearing a handsome white military uniform. Marke is less angry than hurt and confused by Tristan’s betrayal with the woman who is to become queen. Mr. Pape brought opulent sound and affecting dignity to the king’s aching monologue.
Metaphor sometimes becomes symbolism in Mr. Trelinski’s staging, and that’s another thing entirely. In Act III, as Tristan lies wounded on a hospital bed, a little boy, an invented silent character, approaches him curiously. Mr. Trelinski is clearly moved by a theme other directors gloss over: Tristan was an orphan and still longs for his parents. Introducing this little boy is poignant to a degree but begins to seem heavy-handed.
The production ends with a directorial touch that some Wagner fans may hate (perhaps one reason the production team drew scattered boos during final ovations). Before singing the “Liebestod,” the invocation to love-death, Ms. Stemme’s Isolde slashes her wrist with a knife, precipitating her death. But Wagner’s idea was that Isolde sinks into death transfigured, now united with the dead Tristan — the only possible resolution of desire and passion.
Every time I got impatient with this production, aspects of it drew me back in. I wonder, though, if my reaction was mostly due to the fine singing and the great work of Mr. Rattle and the orchestra. When Ms. Stemme’s Isolde, during the “Liebestod,” wonders whether she alone is hearing mysterious shimmering sounds engulfing her, everyone in the house could hear them too, coming from the great Met orchestra.