Wagner's masterwork "Tristan und Isolde" is a philosophical work of art. Let's get that most obvious statement out of the way.

Superficially, the opera, which opened the Metropolitan Opera's 2016-17 season on Monday September 26, tells the tale of two lovers brought together by war and a love potion before being torn apart by perceived adultery before death unites them.

But the work, considered by many as the greatest the artistic form has ever produced, works on a far deeper level as well with Wagner taking his main cues from philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Most prevalent of concepts is the idea of the day showcasing our false selves while our true beings are unveiled at night. The concept of the noumenon, the Kantian "Thing-in-itself" is at work throughout. Even Wagner's entire musical design for the opera is a representation of Schopenhauer's Will, constantly searching for resolution only to be repeatedly frustrated until the end of the work itself.

So to hear the new production by Mariusz Trelinski, which operates tremendously well on dramatic, philosophical and poetic levels, booed off the stage at the close of its opening was quite baffling indeed.

A Brilliantly Directed Production Rife with Symbolism & Poetry

The production opens with a circular navigation system materializing on a superimposed screen. Following closely with the music, the explosion of sound a few measures into the score after a few iterations of the famed "Tristant Chord," the viewer is inundated with water imagery prefacing an abstract montage that plays throughout the duration of the prelude. We get a repetition of this montage in the final acts prelude as well, giving more sense to a number of the images while preparing the viewer for others that will become crucial to the events unfolding in the final act. Video becomes crucial throughout, emphasizing the world of the beyond for the lovers, the world that is illusion and yet in many ways truer to their spiritual growth than the material world they inhabit at that very moment.

Once the curtain on act one opens, Trelinski establishes the action on a ship that is divided up into nine sections vertically on the stage. It is an overwhelming image. Intelligent use of lighting and staging places the emphasis on the most crucial sections of a given moment, darkening those not being utilized. Tristan and Isolde are stationed on the top and middle sections of the ship with their romantic-suicidal encounter at the end of the act reserved for the bottom of the ship, perhaps a nod to the awakening of the subconscious. The scene is wonderfully directed with the showdown even putting Tristan at gunpoint. This is brilliantly mirrored in the ensuing act when Tristan and Isolde meet atop the ship at the start of their love duet with the backdrop evolving from violent waves to what looks like the ethereal Northern Lights. Halfway through the duet, as Brangane issues her warning to them, the curtain drops and new video pops up, the viewer's perspective flying through an array of clouds before moving through more abstract imagery until at the end of the journey, a large mass consumes everything - the center of it all, interpret it as you like.

When Isolde and Tristan reappear for the end of the duet, we are once again at the bottom of the boat. Trelinski's big twist in this act features Tristan self-inflicting his own wound instead of giving his friend-foe Melot that honor. It adds to the symbolic resonance of Tristan's torment in the ensuing act.

The final act seemingly takes place in a hospital, but plays more like a Tarkovsky film with symbolic imagery whisking in and out of frame throughout. A young boy, perhaps Tristan himself (the opera notes that he was an orphan) appears every time the English horn has its labyrinthine lament, though he disappears the moment the adult Tristan awakes. Green lights create a jail-like pattern across the front of the stage at certain moments. As Tristan remembers his youth and misery, he is transported back to an old wooden home and in a pretty direct reference to the great Russian filmmaker, fire consumes the entire place as Tristan's torture reaches its apex.

The theme of light blinding Tristan and Isolde is made literal for the audience with lights often being directed right into the auditorium, a risky proposition that pays off for those deeply immersed in the intellectual aspects of the drama.

The opera is beautifully staged and directed throughout though perhaps the most glorious moment of all takes place in the ending as the two lovers come together one last time. Isolde enters stage right with Tristan propped up on the opposite end. As she arrives he turns to her and she slowly makes her way as the music's longing grips at our emotions. They come together, delicately embrace and with one final utterance of "Isolde," Tristan tragically falls dead. It is a moment of utmost humanity and beauty in a production dense with symbolic gestures.

The closing of the opera is perhaps the reason behind the jeering that the opera drew. Isolde opts for slitting her wrists, the transcendence essentially nullified. But perhaps that is the whole point Trelinski makes in his interpretation of Wagner and Schopenhauer - the transcendence can only come after death, not in the midst of life. As she perishes, the remaining action happens off-stage, the remaining characters mere shadows. The final Liebestod is stage in the most unobtrusive of ways, with the ocean moving about above while Isolde and Tristan hold one another on stage left.

A Cast Like None Other

In the title role of Isolde, Nina Stemme brought a ferocious portrayal to the Princess. Right from the get-go her voice was filled with heft and the raw visceral tone that made her such a success last season in Strauss' "Elektra." Hers was a violent approach, Isolde doing physical battle a few times with Ekaterina Gubanova's Brangane over the potion and then turning off the lights at the start of Act 2. It was quite exciting to see a production of this work with actors so ready to commit on all levels despite the taxing duration of the opera.

Stemme's interpretation went from a coarser vocal style to a more delicate and subdued one, with attacks to the high notes more tempered as the evening wore on. It gave Isolde a gentler and even resigned feel that gave the shocking suicide an honesty and realism that a different vocal interpretation would not have substantiated. Her phrasing in the "Liebestod," arguably the most famous section of the entire opera, was gloriously spun with sublime belcanto legato that Wagner was oft-quoted as desiring for his work.

The same could be said for tenor Stuart Skelton, who was never afraid to sing with a thinner timbre, eschewing any ill-perceived notion that all Wagner's music must be sung with tremendous sound throughout. His pleas to Isolde at the end of Act 2 featured this vocal quality, as did the passages in which Tristan remembers his youth. But those familiar with the opera know that Tristan, perhaps far more than his romantic counterpart or any Wagner role for that matter, is called to sing through the elephantine orchestra in some of the most difficult vocal passages imaginable. Skelton did not relent at any point, pouring every ounce of his voice and emotion into those heart-breaking moments. Even in the rare sections where his voice seemed to be running out of its strength, he managed to shape the moments into visceral dramatic highlights that allowed the listener to immerse him or herself into Tristan's agony.

Rene Pape is one of the greatest King Marke interpreters of all time and his performance at the Met was a reminder why. His voice issued the declamatory phrases with tremendous precision of tone, diction and rhythm in the early passages, before giving way to a more delicate sound that underscored Marke's anger giving way to pain. His physical presence supported this development, first dominant as he circled around a fallen Tristan and then less mobile and distanced from his kinsman as he lamented his situation.

Gubanova also made her mark as Brangane, her singing luxurious and her interplay with Stemme's Isolde adding a contentious dynamic to the relationship. Brangane gets two of the most memorable musical passages in the opera during the famous love dialogue and Gubanova delivered Wagner's writing with sweeping silkiness that felt at home with the ethereal ambience produced by the staging and music.

Intelligent Direction From The Pit

In the pit Sir Simon Rattle managed to conjure up glorious colors from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Rattle was at home with Wagner's extreme dynamic range, often letting the orchestra lower to whispers that drew the audience deeper and deeper into the musical landscape. This was present right at the end of the famous prelude, the final lines from the basses fading out to almost nothingness. He had no problems pushing the orchestra to its emotional limits on any of Wagner's potent climaxes, though he did show restraint throughout, keeping the audience wanting more before eventually giving it to them. Tristan's lengthy scene is one such example of Rattle managing the climaxes well, allowing them to build on one another until erupting with fury as Tristan curses everything and everyone around him. The final notes of the opera were truly mesmerizing, with Rattle holding that final resolution for as long as the orchestra would allow him, allowing the listener to hold on as well in a moment of true ecstasy.


Wagner's music and dramas are not for everyone and even seasoned opera goers might feel intimidated by the master. But "Tristan und Isolde" is an opera that needs to be experienced by anyone and everyone, even those who have never gone to the opera. Despite its 4-plus hour running time, this is an opera that immerses emotionally, spiritually and even physically and the Met's production, featuring intelligent direction, a terrific cast and genius conductor is simply too perfect an opportunity to pass up.