Opera is not an audio experience. Anyone who has tried aand failed to enjoy Wagner by listening only will nod in understanding when I point out that Wagner himself said that it encompassed many genres (Gesamtkunstwerk). This is one of the main reasons why I enjoy the Live at the Met opera movies. I get to see the opera performed. It makes theatrical as well as musical sense.
So, the truth of the matter is that I was a Tristan und Isolde virgin. It was all new to me.
I was blown away by the opera, its music so wonderfully played by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle (who apparently used Mahler’s marked score as a study), its sumptious singers (Stuart Skelton as Tristan and Nina Stemme as Isolde), and what I assume is a fairly atypical staging by director Mariusz Trelinski.
The setting for Act 1 and part of Act II is a modern warship and we were subjected to a radar signal scanner throughout the prelude and interlude. I would have preferred seeing the orchestra members playing and Sir Simon Rattle conducting, but I wasn’t consulted. It set the tone for a very dark production – but it pushed the richly orchestrated music into a subservient position. The unrelieved grey and black of the first act bothered my friend a lot – almost to the point of physical illness. I found it visually boring but not disturbing.
The demands of the vocal roles were always met. I was truly touched by Stemme’s beautiful rendition. Ekaterina Gubanova was lovely, especially as the opera progressed.
The visual motifs of a lunar eclipse puzzled me, as did the spectral military figure and, later, a military clad child. I wasn’t entirely convinced that I got “it”, whatever “it” was. It didn’t bother me all that much because the vocal splendour and the story itself gripped me with wondrous theatrical glory – except in the love scenes. There was just no plausibility or eroticism in Act II. It might have been the toxic environmental props that killed their passion. I would not have chosen it as a venue for a bit of clandestine lovemaking. In Act III I loved the ECG monitor despite the fact that it was not attached to the dying Tristan. Then we weren’t shown the ECG at all when he died. I was expected to see it flatline. A missed opportunity in my opinion to put that weird technology to some theatrically pertinent use.
All round Tristan und Isolde was interesting and musically wonderful, encouraging me to try more of Wagner’s works in the Live in HD series in the future.
The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series is shown at Cinema Nouveau in Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg for a limited number of screenings.