Tristan und Isolde at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Berlin, Germany

This review is for the performance of 12 June, 2016. Surtitles provided in both German and English above the stage.
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Director: Graham Vick

Cast

Tristan: Stephen Gould
King Mark: Liang Li
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Kurvenal: Ryan McKinny
Melot: Jörg Schörner
Brangäne: Tanja Ariane
Et al.

Act I

I was very excited to see Tristan und Isolde sung with these two leads. It turned out to be a real eye-opener to hear what this masterpiece sounds like in a smaller house (seats 1800+) sung by leading singers still at their peak.

The curtain opened on a rather confusing set that looked to be a suite on a cruise ship - sort of - with the too obvious symbol of a coffin acting as a coffee table set before a sofa. Isolde stood on a platform in a wedding gown, while Brangäne worked on alterations. A young boy sat on the sofa playing with a toy boat and a large swivel chair was located nearby - turned with its back to the audience but with an unknown someone seated. Isolde steped out of the gown and was approached by a group of sailors, perhaps, who were intent on intimidating her - successfully, it appeared, as she reached for a high-heeled shoe to threaten them with. One of the group removed his shirt, revealing a sleeveless T-shirt, who took the lead in tormenting Isolde. He ultimately used a squeeze bottle of ketchup in a motion like slitting his throat, leaving a red 'cut' and the group laughed and departed.

We were clearly off and running with a Regie-production of T&I, that was full of distractions - perhaps intended as some sort of vague symbols, though perhaps only to juice up an opera that doesn't otherwise offer much action. As the act continued, a fully naked lady emerged from stage left and slowly sauntered across the set, stopping before the boy on the sofa (who appeared to be about 10 yrs old), who reached up, took her hand, and they slowly walked across the stage to a group of French doors, and exited. Well, what was that about, I thought? Tristan, now seated on the sofa, had a blank stare while Isolde and Brangäne were seated at a square table and singing about Isolde's ability with potions, learned from her mother. Brangäne got up from the table, walked into the nearby bathroom and emerged with a tin box (something like a fishing tackle box). When Isolde summoned Tristan to join her, she opened the box and removed a syringe, which they shared and, I need to add, quite convincingly. In the meantime, the chorus had entered and stood and watched, each holding a bouquet of flowers (there was to be a wedding, after all). After the short interlude with the love theme following the administering of the potion, the fellow in the swivel chair turned to the audience and was ... King Mark! The chorus all threw their bouquets.

Aside from the jarring production, the singing was downright extraordinary. Each of the principals was as strong as the next. The program notes stated that Ryan McKinny was substituting for Ian Paterson, and his Kurwenal was terrific (he was last seen as Donner in DC's Ring: Das Rheingold and Gunther in Götterdämmerung). Stephen Gould showed no hesitation nor weakness in his top notes at all - just solid expressive singing with a smooth, pleasant timbre. Nina Stemme's Isolde was, if anything, even stronger than her Brünnhilde in DC. Wow.

[B]Act II[/B]

I wasn't sure I wanted to think what would happen in Act II after the very confusing first act. Indeed, the curtain opened on the first act's set shifted from its stage left anchor to stage right. A very naked man stood just off center, leaning on what would turn out to be a shovel. The naked lady was curled up and lying on the table on which the potion was served, now moved to far stage right. A huge black light fixture was prominent that tracked the action on stage. At this point, we were pretty much totally confused about what was going on on-stage, and were very grateful for the English surtitles, which did not seem to be much associated with the stage action. The love duet was stunning, though there was the bit with the naked guy now digging himself a hole in the stage, ever so deliberately, while T&I were singing - not to mention Brangäne's ethereal warning about the night being short, hovering above their singing. King Mark and Melot entered the set through the kitchen, dressed in suits and ties - sort of gangsterlike, but it was hard to tell. (King) Mark's lament about Tristan was riveting (his kingship was thoroughly de-emphasized). I had forgotten that it is a long piece of its own and Liang Li's bass was gorgeous. The naked lady had gotten up off her table and stood and listened in the doorway of a bedroom or closet. Or something. The naked guy seemingly had succeeded in digging the hole to the point that he had disappeared. Kurwenal moved into the scene with a sword, Tristan grabbed the sword, handed it to Melot, and then sort of grabbed the blade and stabbed himself with it.

Act III

Now what, I thought. The curtain opened on the set center stage, with the bank of French windows in the center and Tristan in a bathrobe and pajamas with his back to the audience and staring out the windows. Kurwenal was seated at the table with the shepherd and it was clear that everyone had aged significantly - Kurwenal had gray hair and moved around the stage like an elderly person. He moved several time to put a shawl around Tristan's shoulders - who otherwise showed no sign of his wound. The translation in the surtitles indicated that Tristan was confused about where he was: Cornwall? No, Karneol. How did he get there, he wanted to know. It seemed that Graham Vick took it upon himself to turn Act III into a commentary on the human condition in old age (Oh yes, the coffin was prominent on the floor, center stage left, surrounded by candles). Tristan's monologue that usually seems interminable, with tenors inevitably struggling to summon what might be left of their voices to just get through the thing, flashed by with Stephen Gould's voice still strong and steady - steely - and full of life. He finished, then exited through the French doors. A very old Isolde entered from a bedroom with white hair (she had been oufitted in something of an Irish red hair fright wig in Acts I & II), wearing a faded Highlands plaid skirt and a trench coat. When it came around to the "Liebestod", although it was the first time I had seen this done without Tristan present (presumably, he was in the coffin, though that was a bit of stage magic that was left to the imagination...), Nina Stemme once again had me with tears rolling down my cheeks.

No question: Last night's was the best sung Tristan und Isolde I've ever seen. It also was the weirdest, mostly incoherent production that I've ever seen (lots and lots of assets... Cough, cough) that somehow was dramatically effective. Wagner's masterpiece is so strong it stands up to almost anything directors might try to do to it - weird productions, not very good singing (as in DC productions I've seen), almost anything. The three of us walked out into the Berlin night dazzled and still wondering what it was all about.