Saint Petersburg celebrated its 302nd birthday and the opening of its 13th Stars of the White Nights Festival this year with what could have been an historic occasion: Russia’s first performance of Tristan und Isolde since 1913. Perhaps it was the 92-year gap in the opera’s performance history on the Russian stage, but this new production by Dmitrii Cherniakov sadly failed to take advantage of the opportunity.
The costumes, designed by Cherniakov himself in collaboration with Irina Tsvetkova, add even less. Sergei Liadov, our bespectacled Tristan, does not remove his glasses throughout the entire opera, though the tenor has performed other Wagner roles without showing any sign of needing them. This oddity, together with his second act gray sweater and trench coat, both of which stay on the whole time, including the lusty scenes, do more than anything other than a walker or a wheelchair to eliminate the dynamism with which Wagner endowed his hero. It is hard to imagine this professorial Tristan killing Morold or doing much of anything else with passion or verve. The scuffle with Melot (over a pistol rather than a sword) is a stellar example of theatrical silliness – our Tristan resembles a hapless middle-aged man vainly resisting a mugger. Isolde spends the entire opera in non-descript gowns that seem deliberately designed for fat ladies. Marke, clad in a cashmere topcoat, and his suited retinue look vaguely like Russian gangsters, perhaps intentionally, but perhaps not.
The Mariinsky is not known for the high quality of its stage direction, but it would seem that Cherniakov and his collaborators have seen or heard of too many other po-mo Tristans. Perhaps there is a new sexual harassment law in the theatrical world that forbids singers to touch during love scenes, but Petersburg’s audience has now joined Vienna’s in witnessing two static figures standing beside each other and staring into space while they indulge in the closest musical approximation of orgasm. But in case we miss the dramatic point or cannot hear the singing, at least we have digitally created explosions going off on a film screen that depicts a sprawling metropolis at night – explosions bright enough to divert all our attention from the singers and their raptures.
Overall, Cherniakov has reduced a work that is the quintessence of spiritual and emotional transcendence to a mere reminder of the banal contemporary reality that we are condemned to inhabit. Wagner’s philosophical goal of escaping mundane, phenomenal existence through art, music, and theater has been avoided yet again to no purpose by a producer who can add neither an affirmation of humanity nor any more than a superficial comprehension of the composer’s intentions. Of course the human experience has limitations, but is it not Wagner’s point that they can be overcome, even if it must be in death? What value can possibly come from trivializing the power of love, ecstasy, and redemption in the way that this Tristan does? All it really tells us is that Eurotrash designers are dull, passionless individuals who are too bogged down in their own pretensions to cynicism and irony to find beauty in the world. And if that is what they have to say, then who cares? Why must expansive, feeling people be forced to waste so much time paying attention to so many bores – the people who, to paraphrase the late William S. Burroughs speaking of the late and not so great Kurt Cobain, frown for no reason? Let us feel sorry for the prolonged adolescence of the avant-garde and move on. The gushing streams of people fleeing the Mariinsky after Act II both nights and one Russian audience member’s overheard comment, “Just shut your eyes and listen to Wagner’s music” illustrate perfectly that these theatrical crybabies are not responding to the needs and aspirations of their audience, whose humanity is already under relentless assault and ever more in need of affirmation.
Talented vocalism can often save abstruse productions such as this one (witness the Met’s recent Tristan, Lohengrin, and Fidelio productions), but here, too, the Mariinsky’s effort has little to offer. Liadov’s Tristan had occasional flashes of power, but was on the whole weak and unbalanced. Most of his third act singing evoked the rhythmic barking of an aged Siegfried Jerusalem, who held on to his Heldentenor roles a few years too long. In the May 29 performance even Liadov’s second act singing was weak, verging at times toward inaudible. The role of Isolde went in the opening night performance to the ill-suited Larissa Gogolevskaia, handily the worst of the three Brunnhildes cast in the Mariinsky’s Ring Cycles of 2003 and 2004 and a soprano who justifiably appears to receive very few other parts in Petersburg or elsewhere. Although she seems to have lost some weight and handled her role’s middle register with more agility than she has mustered in the past, her upper register remains as shrill and unpleasant as her dramatic abilities are limited and disappointing. Her Liebestod sounded like a last desperate gasp for air rather than a surrendering to eternity. Milana Butaeva, who took over for the second performance, was more appealing visually, but also struggled to deliver Isolde’s best music. A glimmer of hope is offered by the fine young soprano Olga Sergeeva’s reported inclusion in this production, but she has yet to be heard (a third performance is scheduled for June 30). More enjoyable was the supporting cast, particularly the Markes of Mikhail Kit — fresh from his well-received performances of Wotan in New York last month — and Gennady Bezzubenkov. Masters of the Russian repertoire’ great bass roles, their Wagner performances are solid and should be esteemed. Olga Sa
vova and Svetlana Volkova both brought fine musicianship to their Branganes, as did the stentorian Andrei Spekhov to his Kurwenal. Artistic director Valery Gergiev led the Mariinsky’s orchestra with his usual intensity and volume, especially in the brass and percussion, but, uncharacteristically, he seemed inattentive to many subtleties in the score and failed to convey much of its pathos. The prelude did not move, and the orchestra’s general sound remained inchoate throughout both evenings. Despite his achievements elsewhere in the Wagner repertoire, his Tristan cannot yet stand with those of Levine, Barenboim, or, especially, Christian Thielemann in its power and purpose.