Ah, Tristan, the opera that ruined my life. . . . (“Do you want to go out for coffee?” “Well . . . is this going to end in an ecstatic love-death that will annihilate space and time? Because otherwise, I kinda have some stuff I need to get done. . . . those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves. . . .”). If I were limited to two operas, I think I would take Tristan und Isolde and Le Nozze di Figaro: between them you pretty much have the universe, with the ecstasy and sorrow of the former’s inward-looking lovers balanced by the latter’s earthy joys amid a complex, shifting social structure. I wonder if Tristan isn’t one of those works like King Lear that is almost too mighty for people to act out on stage, leaving every performance both deeply moving and inadequate.
Bayreuth had a wonderful cast for Tristan; it was everything else that came up short. Beforehand I was hearing raves about Nina Stemme’s Isolde, and she did have amazing power but, I felt, started to run out of gas during the liebestod, which is when you least want that to happen. The one who really impressed me was Robert Dean Smith, who sang a Tristan of brave sweetness and anguish. Our Kurwenal, John Wegner, was much steadier than the man who did the broadcast performance (that’s the paradox of opera reviewing – even if the performers had been the same, you’d get a different performance from evening to evening, and sometimes from act to act).
The production was baffling. The pictures that I saw beforehand made me think it would have a contemporary setting, which could be an interesting way of examining the mythic and heroic within the everyday. But the actual staging starts out looking like a 1930s luxury liner, as if everyone is going to break into “Anything Goes” and start tapdancing; the Cole Porter connotations have a way of reducing gestures that should be majestic to the Margaret-Dumontish. But when V (who has a keener fashion awareness than I do) saw pictures of the costumes she asked why it was set in the 1960s. I responded that I would have guessed the 1970s, based on the fake wood paneling and mustard yellow décor of the finale. Updating a work to contemporary times is one thing, but I'm not sure updating something to forty years ago has much point.
The costume designer certainly didn’t do anyone in the cast any favors. I had seen Stemme in SF Opera’s Flying Dutchman, and knew she could look better, but it wasn’t until Robert Dean Smith stepped into Siegmund’s furs for Act II of Walkure that I realized he could look like a big guy rather than an inflated boy, and Kwangchul Youn’s sensitively sung and moving King Mark looked distractingly like Kim Jong Il.
Tristan is like other operas turned inside out; instead of reflective moments amid action it has moments of action amid hours of soliloquy. This can certainly lead to staging problems, but the Bayreuth production dealt with most of them by simply having people stand facing the wood paneling when they weren’t singing, as if they were in time-out. This is not staging but surrender. The wounding of Tristan, which he clearly did to himself, was effective, but everything else just didn’t happen, so that you didn't get a sense of the bustle and pointless violence of the outside world breaking in on the two lovers.
Speaking of bustle and pointlessness intruding on one’s inner universe. . . this was the night I had to accept that Bayreuth audiences are really not much better than any others, rumors to the contrary. Why did the man behind me need to reach into his rustly crinkly plastic bag during all the quiet moments? Another mystery of opera-going. . . .