It is, as shown by all of social media, staggeringly easy to be cynical. As I sat in a West Country multiplex yesterday, though, I felt the snark lift from my eyes and, for a few minutes, basked in the pure technical wonder of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD screening. That I am able to pop along to my local(ish) cinema and watch a 5 hour Wagner opera live and as it happens is a marvellous, nay, miraculous thing.
Staying with the wondrous, the Met sent us a performance of Tristan und Isolde that will, when broadcast on the radio, surely be one for the ages. Nina Stemme gave a wild eyed and driven Isolde that never dipped in pure emotional and vocal projection. Stuart Skelton’s Tristan was hugely persuasive too, though a little caught in the shadow of Stemme’s brilliance. The other parts (and there really aren’t that many) were universally winning, particularly Rene Pape’s authoritative King Marke. The real man of the hour(s and hours) was Sir Simon Rattle, who has talked about the lucidity he discovered in the myriad of markings written in Mahler’s personal score of the opera. That special knowledge allowed heft and transparency into the music, but the sense of flow was all Rattle’s own – note the great aborted climax which rips the lovers from each other’s gaze as Marke discovers their treachery, half way through Act 2.
But oh, the rest. Tristan begins at sea, which allows for director Mariusz Trelinski’s modern naval setting. Longing, searching, navigating, whatever, is represented from the off by the circular sweep of a radar beam, which also looks like the safety curtain buffering while the set loads. Within the circle, the thrusting prow of a ship pounds the waves like a particularly wet nautical dream. Water and flame are motifs throughout, glimpsed first in flashbacks cut like an amateur homage to Andrei Tarkovsky, for whom they were recurrent and pleasingly baffling symbols. And a great churning projection of the sea reappears whenever things get, you know, a bit choppy. Trelinski seems really uninterested in representing or heightening the emotional state of the characters, setting Act 2 in a massive dingy cargo bay, with Tristan and Isolde bumping into what look like toxic compost bins as they paw at each other. And by Act 3, the visual ideas have dried up almost completely, save for a lighter-wielding 10-year old (some sort of health and safety violation, surely) and a brief episode in a ruined house.
And so while the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera and Sir Simon and a stellar cast carved out a flowing, yearning, exhausting Tristan, the staging returned me to cynicism. Some of what I saw I liked – the big black sun that hovers above the lovers is a really creepy and magnetic image – but if the cinema-inspired Trelisnki is drawing on the symbol-filled films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the images need to suggest an enticing but enigmatic logic in a way that they don’t here. Maybe it’s a production from which more would emerge with repeated viewing, but right now, I just want to hear it on the radio.