Michael Tanner

I’m sick of productions like the Met’s Tristan und Isolde

I'm sick of productions like the Met's Tristan und Isolde
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Tristan und Isolde

Met Opera Live

I am sick to death of productions of Tristan und Isolde which leave me bewildered, alienated, distracted from the work and its significance, unable to concentrate on the music. I haven't seen a Tristan which didn't do all these things for many years, and had vowed never to go to another, until the Met advertised its new production, with a starry cast and with Simon Rattle, a conductor who at his best, as he has been recently, is quite wonderful, even revelatory.

My hopes were soon dashed. Musically, because the Prelude was so restrained, and turned out to set the tone for the whole thing: Rattle was in the mood to hold everything back until the last few minutes of each act, so that he even went in for a chamber-type approach to much of the music, and the superb Wagnerian storm and toss of the orchestra, in such thrilling passages as Isolde's narration and curse, went for very little. Watching that passage didn't help; both Isolde and Brangäne vaped through it, though that clearly did nothing to soothe their nerves.

The setting is naturally contemporary – when isn't it? – with obtrusive metal staircases, something that is featured in the current Bayreuth Tristan as well, presumably the next director's cliche to dread. Tristan and his men are in the navy, and well-medalled. They apparently stay onboard for Act 2, though that makes the night hunt rather difficult. In the contemporary mode there are several silent characters, including a small boy who wanders on during Act 3 and holds a lighter close to Tristan's face. This lighter is a motif of the production, used by several characters to almost burn themselves, with huge canisters of poison gas around that could be dangerous – presumably Tristan and Isolde are playing with fire.

Why am I not more moved by Nina Stemme's Isolde? I have seen her in the role many times, from her first performance of it in Glyndebourne in 2003. Her voice is large, reliable, not exactly beautiful; she is intelligent, a competent actress; yet with all those virtues I find a lack of heart, no real anger in Act 1, not a woman transfigured by love in Act 2.

Stuart Skelton's Tristan has been much admired, and he does have a pleasant voice, but he will sing out of the side of his mouth, and close-ups do him no favours. He is also becoming alarmingly bulky, so that intimacy with Isolde is precarious. Ekaterina Gubanova is an admirably Brangäne, Evgeny Nikitin a sad disappointment as Kurwenal, straining at his top notes, and emotionally inert. By far the star of the show is René Pape, whom I had almost given up on, having found his performances of recent years dull and routine. Here, as Marke, he is passionate, noble, enormously expressive – in fact, ideal. Now all we need is a cast to match him.