Edge of the Unknown

Under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton opened the 2015–16 Met season in Mariusz Treliński’s new production of Tristan und Isolde, in which the director explores the extreme psychological forces that propel the lovers into uncharted waters. By Rebecca Schmid

With Tristan und Isolde, Richard Wagner took a medieval legend and transformed it into a metaphysical journey from desire to transfiguration. Underlying the tale is the struggle between a Cornish knight and an Irish princess who escape their worldly strictures only by drinking a love potion that neither intended to ingest. Death, intertwined as it is with love in Wagner’s notion of Liebestod, is an imminent force from the outset. “The protagonists drink a potion that will kill them,” says director Mariusz Treliński. “The story takes place within that context. As it unfolds, we start identifying with their world and begin hating daylight, hating all the compromises life forces upon us, and attempt to lose ourselves in the night. Love becomes death, death becomes love. Everything’s turned upside down.”

On one level, Wagner’s opera tells of a classic love triangle. Tristan enters into an affair with Isolde after being ordered by his uncle, King Marke, to bring the princess across the sea to Cornwall so that the king may take her as his bride. But the title characters’ infatuation is aroused by unworldly forces: Isolde, planning vengeance against Tristan for his slaying of the Irish knight Morold, plans to serve him a deathly potion. Her maid, Brangäne, substitutes it for a flask that plunges Tristan and Isolde into a passionate embrace that defies the material world. The electrifying dramatic soprano Nina Stemme and acclaimed tenor Stuart Skelton inhabited the title characters when this production premiered at the Met in 2016, joined by René Pape as King Marke, Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne, and Evgeny Nikitin as Tristan’s servant, Kurwenal.

Wagner conceived Tristan just as he had fallen under the influence of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose theory of the world as a representation of the mind provided him with the basis for conflating reality and dream. “I immersed myself in the depths of the psyche and from this inmost center of the world, boldly constructed an external form,” the composer wrote in 1860, five years before the opera’s premiere. At the same time, the story dramatizes Wagner’s real-life relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a wealthy patron, who served as his muse. In Tristan, truth exists not in the waking hours of earthly existence, but at night, the time of blissful unconsciousness. “The fascinating thing about Wagner is that he forces us to re-examine our lives by projecting them into a world of extremes,” says Treliński. “The things we deem important, like the light of day, are merely an illusion.”


Trelński describes Tristan’s conflict between these internal and external realities as bordering on schizophrenic: “He’s being torn apart. We get the façade, and then we get the real essence. On the outside, Tristan is a soldier carrying out his orders. There’s a war between Ireland and England. But at the same time, Tristan carries a deep wound inside him.” For the director, in the context of dueling Western nations, the tragic hero could represent the downfall of Europe itself. “Why are we so sad and defeated?” he asks rhetorically. “So decadent? There comes a time when you realize that the essence of life is not conquest but trying to bear witness to that which is most beautiful.”

Treliński’s production emphasizes the political dimensions of the story by setting the first two acts on a modern-day warship, conceived by set designer Boris Kudlićka as both a realistic representation of the plotline and a symbol of Tristan’s psychic passage. “Tristan guides the ship as a sailor with a specific goal,” says Treliński. “But at the same time, he is sailing to the edge of night.” By the third act, when the wounded Tristan lies sleeping outside his castle in Brittany, the audience should “enter his mind and touch upon the other side of reality,” a progression the director describes as “from the material world into the spiritual. Wagner spends a long time preparing us for this. It is a point where we transcend our individual selves and earthly concerns, where names cease to matter, where we become one with the universe. The question is: What awaits on the other side? Our task is to lead the audience to the edge of the unknown.”

A filmmaker by training with an enormously successful career in Polish cinema, Treliński also relies on video to represent the sphere of Tristan and Isolde’s mystical union. When they take the potion, projections by Bartek Macias take the viewer through images of natural landscapes before ascending into a galactic sphere. “The story can’t be told entirely in the real world,” the director explains. “And it becomes too easy when set purely in the realm of magic. So I knew from the start that the production would involve a transition, that I would guide the audience through a realistic tale, and then slowly move beyond it.”

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Wagner’s musical language itself expresses the tension between reality and illusion, love and death. “Now at last we have music which is obedient only to its own most complex laws,” as the 19th-century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé wrote. “First it mingles the colors and forms of the actor with its own timbres and motives ... And then it sweeps him away in a wave of Passion.” Isolde’s own words as she begins what is known as her transfiguration—when she falls lifelessly onto Tristan’s body—may even reflect on the power of the music: “In the surging flood, in the ringing sound, in the world-breath’s infinite gasp / to drown, to sink / unconscious / highest bliss!”

The four-hour-plus score, of course, poses tremendous challenges to the singers as they ride atop the massive sound of the orchestra. “You need to find a sustainable way of producing sound,” says Stemme, “because if you try to give too much, you won’t be heard.” The soprano finds it necessary to reassess the character with each new production because the music is so “vast and difficult. I have something that I would like to tell, but you can always find something new. You always hear new details.” For Treliński, the opera demands an extreme range of character. “On the one hand, it is one big outpouring of ecstasy, so you need subtlety to convey that. On the other hand, you need the temperament and energy to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.”