Sunday, October 9, 2016

Tristan und Isolde by Mariusz Treliński

Mariusz Treliński was movie-star good looking when I met him in the Kennedy Center foyer ahead of his first U.S. appearance in 2001. The acclaimed Polish film director had attracted the attention of then-Washington Opera director Placido Domingo with his innovative production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly in Poland and Domingo invited him to stage it in the U.S. That event changed Treliński's life forever. Since then he has directed operas in several major U.S. cities, and many others in various countries. His operatic journey has culminated with the production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera's new season.

Treliński's Butterfly was the first truly exciting opera production I had seen in Washington and, I thought, one with uniquely central European uncluttered esthetic. Although it is my least favorite opera, that one production of it remains memorable thanks to Treliński's genius.

In our interview that October of 2001, he told me (surprise, surprise) that the role of the opera director today is to make an old art form attractive to contemporary audiences, while retaining the original spirit of the work. He achieved that by making simple effects highly symbolic. Instead of recreating the early 20th century Nagasaki, he used lights to create images of shimmering water, boats silhouetted against the setting sun, the flow of Butterfly's blood. There were very few props. The stage was almost always bare, but never less than striking.

In a hitherto uncustomary prologue to the opening scene, three Polish mimes tiptoed over the dark and silent stage making grand theatrical movements at a slow pace as if performing some macabre dance. One of them slashed the air with a long knife. It was clear from their ominous expressions there will be no happy ending to the story.

The mimes reappeared throughout the opera in different roles - as servants, thieves, ghosts or spirits depicting Butterfly's moods - their movements and expressions reminiscent of the traditional Japanese kabuki theater. Similarly, Goro moved around the stage in bows and squats like an oversized sneaky cat with gestures and facial expressions that conveyed his shrewd and manipulative character better than words.

In the last highly symbolic scene the sky turned bright orange-red due to the eclipse of the sun. For Butterfly, the sun was gone with Pinkerton, said Treliński. "Butterfly sacrificed everything for the man she loved because she saw him as God. And that was her sin," he said. "Her excessive love for a man violated the first of the Ten Commandments."

The success of that production was such that Treli
ński got invited to return to Washington with his next creative endeavor, Andrea Chenier - also a very symbolic rendition, but in my view less focused and less memorable than his Butterfly. From the first act showing the nobility wrapped up in their cocoons (which I liked), the scene changed to something like an American country fair (which I didn't like), and the rest I forgot.

Treliński reappeared in the U.S. a few years later with productions of La Bohème and Don Giovanni that were not well received, and then I heard nothing of him, until he reappeared in New York in last season's spell-binding Met productions of Iolanta and Bluebird's Castle. The double bill performance made it crystal clear that during a decade and a half since his Butterfly in Washington, the Polish director had moved on. In his hands and Anna Netrebko's interpretation, the usually kitschy and pathetic princess Iolanta became a passionate young girl striving for independence and awareness. But it was in Bluebird's Castle, that Trelinski and his designer Boris Kudlička really outdid themselves. The double bill production was described as film noir, and seeing it
in a movie theater as I did, was probably more impressive than seeing the live performance on account of the copious use of cinematic effects. Treliński believes that fairy tales always contain deeper levels and he is a master of unveiling them. He said he wanted the fairy-tale women to become real - the characters we can identify with. Both pieces were spectacularly successful, although for me Bluebird remains especially unique and unforgettable. It created a sense for the audience of being in a nightmare together with the performers. 

No wonder, the Met snatched the talented Pole again for this season and this time with an offer he could not refuse. What can be more flattering for an opera director than the invitation to present his vision of Tristan und Isolde and no less than at one of the world's topmost opera houses.

Photo: Ken Howard for the MetropolitanOpera
This time around the reviews were not unanimously complimentary. Some critics thought the modern warship setting and various video projections were unnecessary and distracting. One reviewer particularly hated references to Tristan's early loss of parents. None of this bothered me. I found Trelinski's contemporary setting as acceptable as any, and in an opera without too much action, an occasional appearance of Tristan's father's ghost, or some image from his childhood did not take away anything from the beauty of the music or from the central theme. The military costumes were not a novelty either. In fact, I was surprised to find this production of Wagner's work a lot less revolutionary than expected from such an innovator as Trelinski.

Still, his interpretation did reveal at least one new layer of Tristan for me. While for years I watched the opera as a great love story, this Saturday at a movie theater I saw it for the first time as an opera about death. Partly, it must have been due to the dark setting which highlighted all the talk about hating daylight and embracing night, and seeking relief in the blackness of the netherworld. But I am sure the shift in my perception was a great deal due to the protagonists who in this performance were anything but lovers. I have never been Nina Stemme's fan and no amount of imagination or goodwill on my part could turn Stuart Skelton into Tristan. To make matters worse, there was zero chemistry between the two. The only interpreters worth sitting through four hours of this opera were Ekaterina Gubanova, a convincing and lovable Brangäne - the best I've ever seen - and René Pape as dignified King Marke. Gubanova also never looked better. Neil Cooper's Melot was noteworthy, although less so.

Tristan und Isolde may be about death, but it is still primarily about star-crossed lovers, and definitely not about their companions and relatives, and so despite Trelinski's efforts and overall decent singing, this production fell flat.

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