The action of the opera is slight: the characters are declaiming their feelings throughout. Hence Nietzsche called it Wagner’s Opus Metaphysicum. The only choice that is made throughout the piece is King Marke’s choice to forgive Tristan at the end, but the choice is less effectual than Marke had hoped since by the time he reaches him Tristan is already dead. Ineffectual also is Brangaene’s very willful choice to substitute the love elixir for the death elixir: their love Tristan and Isolde already have, and since their love cannot take place in this world the only place it can take place is another world, but the only other world a human can go to is the world of death, if that is a world. Of such a world we have a conception at least, because every day gives way to a night and to darkness, a fact that will provide the master metaphor of Tristan’s declamations in second act.
When we enter the hall the work of the scenographer, Christophe Hetzer, has already begun. The curtain is up and a large black square about half as big as the whole stage is suspended there in front of a back-wall in muted silver-grey. It is the goings-on in the area occupied by that square that we have come to see, but now that area is only black. The square is too big to be taken in stride. Is its blackness blocking something or is the something there but unilluminated? With the Prelude the square disappears into the flies, but once Act One begins the looming blackness returns in the form of a set of large black walls twenty five feet high that slowly move and rotate on the stage, sometimes to divide a foreground from a background from which personages can surprisingly emerge, sometimes to separate and frame an area between the characters, but most often to give a black background before which the characters declaim. The movement of these large objects is very gradual; so gradual as to recall the sorts of things Bob Wilson did with Wagner a few years ago in his Ring at Chatelet, his Parsifal in Los Angeles, and his Lohengrin in New York: if you watch them the objects seem not to move; if you don’t watch them you suddenly notice they have disappeared or reconfigured themselves.
Wilson-like also was the lighting of the stage, under the command of Jean Kalman. There are no side walls, just a glowing rear wall that shifts from silver to blue and sometimes to a light green, with the large black moving walls in the middle: the backlighting frames the black walls and the black walls frame the players. The impression is that they are outdoors always (which in fact they are, in all three acts of this opera). Moreover they are always forward on the stage and the backlighting always threatens to cast them in silhouette. What lighting they are given so that we can see their faces and gestures is given very sparingly, largely by means of spotlights from the sides so that they cast shadows on other stage objects and even on each other. Their own costumes are nondescript and what differences there are between them is hardly visible because of the shadowy lighting. Overall the costumes are light blue grey, as is the rear wall most of the time.
The similarity to Wilson’s sets into relief a great dissimilarity from him: in his case these optical effects are his own signature gimmicks but here the concentration of blackness and darkness is the express thesis of the interpretation. Dull blue-grey framing black is the world the blue-grey characters live in – or more accurately are dying in. By the third act Tristan, supine before a black wall, is virtually invisible until he picks himself up and lurches about the stage, but when he returns to that position it is to a darkness invisible and eternal that he returns. Another similarity to Wilson, which we can attribute in this case to the dramaturge, Willem Bruls, is that the characters almost never touch each other. In Wilson’s Parsifal for instance Kundry kissed Parsifal from about fifteen feet away. Here too the characters look at each other only rarely and only once do Tristan and Isolde almost-kiss or maybe-kiss, and it is only after they have been discovered by Mark at the end of Act Two. But again the similarity with Wilson evokes the dissimilarity, for it is a thesis of this interpretation that the characters’ love is a metaphysical kind of thing, if we may use Nietzsche’s term: for this, their spatio-temporal proximity is an expression all-too-gross. And so we may go further and imagine that the gradual movement of the walls is also thematic for the gradual and ineluctable merging of their lives into death.
If there is no action, and the lighting and scenery and costumes conspire to make the characters barely distinguishable from each other, one might have been bored out of his mind unless there were something powerful in the libretto and the way it was sung. Wagner himself was aware that this was where the terrifying power of the opera lay, writing in a letter to Mathilde Wesendonck that the only thing that could likely keep it from being banned would be mediocre performance! The performance on May 18 of Torsten Kerl and Rachel Nicholls (replacing Emily McGee who withdrew) should certainly have led to banishment of the work in former times: easily the most inspiring execution of this opera I have heard. Kerl held up through the final act with almost incredible strength, his voice never losing its sharp, sometimes too sharp, edge; what was most impressive about Nicholls was her control of emotional modulations and the delicacy with which her notes arrived, especially in the Liebestod. Polegato’s Kourvenal threatened to steal the show early in Act Three with his voice and acting – a happy and hopeful voice that believes in the world we live in and thinks Tristan might come out OK, a light that soon enough will be extinguished. Humes’s Mark was strong and dignified but lacked the strain of doleful plangency that this father-figure and king must be made to display despite himself. Gatti’s conducting was limpid but sure with unusual ritardando for emphasis, and his modulation of piano and forte was effective: he is one of those conductors that seems to be teaching us the music.
Complaints: 1) Too much racket from the air-conditioner at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées, especially after the second intermission and the very quiet prelude to Act Three when it could have been turned off for a while – even worse the next night during the astoundingly quiet passages in Jonas Kaufmann’s performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. 2) It is an accident of the score that Brangaene’s and Isolde’s voices are very close and I always have trouble with this, but the trouble is exacerbated almost to the point of absurdity when their costumes are indistinguishable and the light is low. 3) Merold in this production is unaccountably portrayed as a crotchety and crippled old man with an elbow cane, playing spoiler – impossible in the hypothesis, since Merold is a contemporary of Tristan and younger than Mark. Merold is not jealous of Tristan’s love for Isolde (as the libretto is translated by the program of this performance) nor jealous of Isolde’s love for Tristan (as Peter Sellars had it in his Tristan Project, making him homosexual) but envious of Mark’s favoritism of him, for Tristan is an interloper in Cornwall by Mark’s adoption of him. Merold’s only way to Mark is through Tristan, as Brangaene tells Isolde in Act Two. Thus Tristan’s difficulty with Merold is not the product of his love for Isolde but another of the circumstances that makes pursuing that love impossible, and now in the third act, on his home turf, he tells us how his orphaned past led to his search for a father in Mark, which traces the origins of his love with Isolde and the trouble with that love all the way back to the moment he was conceived.
What I learned from this production was the importance of the libretto. The synopsis in the program sets out to give the action, but as I have said there is none. Indeed, to liken the opera to an oratorio has become a commonplace. It is the declamations that are the action, both in the sense of Tristan’s attempt in Act Two to teach Isolde the meaning of their love, and also in the separate but equal autobiographical declamations first by Isolde in Act One (Er sah mir in die Augen) and second by Tristan in Act Three (when the piper’s song reminds him of his parentage). These expose the separate psychological roots of their love for each other, and justify the dramaturgy of non-embrace. They are not, and will not be, spelled out in the synopsis of the opera, so that unless you already know them and to some extent have contemplated the way the characters articulate them – which in the case of Tristan is extremely poetical and as metaphorical as something from Ossian – the characters’ words will seem in performance nothing but more and more lovesick raving. What is tragic about their love is the credible and verisimilar story by which their personal circumstances – what occurred in the world of light – make their love impossible at the same time that it is the only hope in their lives. That death for them is the only viable alternative is not paradoxical or star-crossed but humanly tragic.
At the very end, for the Liebestod, the black wall behind became translucent and behind it, framed by its outline, Isolde sang in silhouette. The body of Tristan had disappeared; she was deep in the stage with the illuminated silver wall to her back, dead to our world and already being transported to the next. This one moment redeemed all the darkness before. More exactly, it embodied what the darkness had meant.
The production is a joint effort with Nederlandse Opera and with the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, whose 2016-2017 it will open. France Musique has announced it will broadcast it on 25 June 2016. Excerpts of what I have tried to describe are available to be seen on YouTube.
— Ken Quandt