Director Mariusz Treliński’s previous work at the Met, in conjunction with Boris Kudlicka’s sets and Bartek Macias’ videos, was a double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. There was symbolism and metaphor galore, and often the text – Iolanta makes reference to the garden she is in while we see her in a white paneled hospital-like setting – fiercely contradicted the libretto. But the overlying drama of each opera was not lost and the performances proved effective.

Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Nina Stemme (Isolde) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Nina Stemme (Isolde)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The same team is back for the Met season opener, Wagner’s earth-shaking Tristan und Isolde. The long evening, much of it in relative darkness (although occasionally, bright lights are pointed at the audience, momentarily blinding us) is hypnotic and/or puzzling and eventually frustrating in its storytelling.

The round circle of a radar scanner is projected at the start of each act – within it are projected stormy seas (a metaphor for emotions) and a huge warship breaking the waves. We also see a young boy being warmly embraced by a man in a white Naval uniform – apparently his father, later seen with a gun – and then the young boy in a fetal position. This must be Tristan, who has father issues... but we’ll get back to that later. The ship is on three levels in nine separate compartments which are lit and darkened throughout the act. Occasionally, panels black out and we observe spy cameras in Isolde’s quarters allowing Tristan to keep an eye on her. It’s an interesting concept, but it has the effect of miniaturizing the central story. Incidentally, at one point, Tristan goes to the bottom, center panel, where a prisoner is tied to a chair, and shoots him in the head.

Northern Lights © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Northern Lights
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

It is in the second act that the production flies off the rails and never quite recovers. The lovers meet in what appears to be the deck of the ship, or a lighthouse, or the Starship Enterprise. The Northern Lights make for a lovely background projection, even if they had to be transported from Norway to Cornwall. During Brangäne’s first warning, down comes a curtain, and when it rises, the couple are in what looks like the hold room of the ship with metal cans filled with industrial waste, and huge fans whirring behind and above them. No romance, no eroticism. Soon there is what looks like an explosion – a black circle with psychedelic smoke coming from all around it takes over the stage. King Marke, not a king, but an admiral in a white naval uniform (see above) and his thuggish soldiers enter and pummel Tristan. Isolde disappears, Marke sings his long monolog (as his soldiers walk off slowly) and then he fades to black as Tristan sings his of his sadness alone. Alone, that is, save for another man, dressed as King Marke but bleeding from the chest, who enters and leaves quickly.

Act III, in a sterile hospital room and nary a shepherd in sight, features a young boy roaming around Tristan’s bed (yes, our hero as a lad) and Tristan’s memories of his childhood in a forest and a devastated house that goes up in flames. The opera’s last half hour is gibberish – the couple does not die as one, transformed cosmically by a love-death. Isolde slashes her wrists, disappears, and comes back, wrists healed and wearing a new frock, to sing her Liebestod in a corner of the stage, in darkness. Ghastly and irrational.

Stuart Skelton (Tristan) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Stuart Skelton (Tristan)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Sir Simon Rattle coaxes the most ravishing sounds from the great Met Orchestra. The strings reach down into the depths of one’s soul; the English horn solo at the start of Act III is as beautiful and vivid as speech, and there is a frequent underlying shimmer that is so necessary in this score. Tempi are quick and there is a large cut in the Love Duet. The most potent moment was Isolde’s narration and curse in Act I – the light of white heat, rage, sensuality and even longing, dims as the action becomes less sensible and the lovers’ lack of interest in one another becomes clear.

Nina Stemme has a spectacular voice that lacks a specific profile; it is not a sound that is easily remembered. Her Isolde is not a demure Irish princess – she smokes and throws both objects and tantrums. Her phrasing is beautiful and her tone solid, nowhere lovelier than in the Liebestod. Stuart Skelton, while not quite vocally in the same class as Ms Stemme, is artistically the right Tristan. He has great instincts and a brilliant way with the text. René Pape's King Marke is a thing of glory; less anger than heartbreak, and beautifully sung.

After a shaky start, the Brangäne of Ekaterina Gubanova turned lush and warm, even sounding on occasion like the great Christa Ludwig. Evgeny Nikitin, though attired like a middle-aged street urchin, was an alternately properly warm and properly gruff Kurwenal. Neal Cooper and Alex Richardson, both making debuts as Melot and the Shepherd, respectively, sounded ugly and old, (also respectively).

The glitzy opening night audience certainly got a far larger and more bitter pill to swallow than usual. Much to their credit, they applauded Rattle, Stemme, Skelton and Pape with great enthusiasm, and booed the production team.