Friday 30 September 2016

Tristan und The Director

A lot of air has been expended lamenting the decline in column inches given to arts coverage and criticism, so it’s good to see The Guardian Online giving apparently free reign to New York based critic Seth Colter Walls to pick apart the Met’s new Tristan und Isolde at length. NY’s Metropolitan Opera presents the meisterwerk in a production by Polish director Mariusz Treliński, which has met with a fair deal of opprobrium of the sort he encountered in Wales when his noirish Manon Lescaut was staged by WNO. It was a big ol’ mess but there were some fascinating ideas in it, but Seth goes after the way in which Treliński’s new Tristan trivialises the themes at the heart of opera

“That the director prefers to make his own pictures take precedence over the sounds and words of the opera is, in itself, notable. More important – and more quizzical – is the fact that director has elected to make an opera-wide fetish out of such a minor point in the work. The great length we have to travel for a reveal of such jaw-dropping inconsequence is just one mark of how turgid and unrewarding this staging can feel.”

But what I really like about Seth’s long-form takedown is that it does what I always wished criticism would do when I was a nipper, feeling my way into the critical language. Early in the review, he carefully establishes critical criteria, an approach to the subject, and proceeds from this point. Lack of space (and sloppy thinking) usually precludes this hugely instructive approach, but if criticism is for anything, surely it’s to offer a framework through which performance might be understood.

“Directorial license in the world of opera takes place between two poles of extremity. One one side, there is the lighter touch. This less-controversial style involves activist moves that nevertheless seek to harmonize in some way with opera as it has been historically understood. These directorial interventions might include putting the action in a new century, using modern dress, or adding some “framing device” – not in the interest of revising the drama, but rather to make its poetry more readily approachable in the moment. The opposing approach might be called the “rewrite” style, wherein the historical intention of the work holds no particular authority, and can thus be stretched, tortured or abandoned at will.”

So often, criticism fails to define its own criteria of assessment, as though the means by which we arrive at a conclusion about a thing might be self-evident. Of course, they’re not.

As for Tristan, the Met’s seems to have the fairly common sight of musicians (among them Sir Simon Rattle, Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton) soldiering on valiantly against the tide of directorial concept. Opera lovers around the world will be able to judge for themselves on Saturday 8th October, when the production is broadcast live in HD to cinemas.

Now go and read the whole review.

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