NEW YORK — Simon Rattle thought back to his first staged performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in Amsterdam in 2001.
“I remember wanting to lie down on the rostrum and curl up in a fetal position and sob,” he said. “While every bone of my body was asking me to do that, the rest of me was saying, no, actually you have to be professional and keep on conducting.”
Wagner’s hypnotic love story, composed from 1857-59 and premiered in 1865, returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night in a psychologically fascinating, nautically centered contemporary staging by the Polish director Mariusz Trelinski. The run, marking 50 years since the new house at Lincoln Center opened, continues for a month, and the Oct. 8 matinee will be telecast to movie theaters around the globe.
“Tristan” had not opened a Met season since 1937 and before this staging Rattle had not conducted a full performance since 2009 in Vienna.
Composed during Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner’s “Tristan” was a musical landmark for its chromaticism. Rattle says Wagner’s transformation is evident from the autograph score.
“His handwriting was famously beautiful and accurate, and sometimes he even used to send his musical handwriting to ladies as a kind of seduction tool,” he said. “When you look at the manuscript of ‘Tristan,’ it simply doesn’t do that at all. I mean, it is perfectly legible, but it’s obviously done at such burning haste. It’s like one of the great biographers of Wordsworth said, he didn’t so much write poems as vomit them out. And it looks as though some other power has taken him over.”
Wagner set the first act on Tristan’s ship, the second outside King Marke’s castle in Cornwall and the third at Tristan’s castle in Brittany. Trelinksi and set designer Boris Kudlicka move all three acts to an ominous, dark and starkly lit warship, setting the first in cabins, the second on the bridge and in a lower-deck weapons bay, and the third in sickbay, where Tristan drifts in and out of consciousness and has flashbacks to his youth that include a doppelganger boy.
Sonar is a frequent backdrop for Trelinski along with Bartek Macias’ projections of waves, flames, black suns and the Northern Lights. This production evokes Peter Sellars’ 2005 Paris staging dominated by Bill Viola videos, and Lars von Trier’s 2011 film “Melancholia.”
Trelinski takes liberties with Wagner’s stage directions. Rather than allowing Melot to stab him, Tristan shoots himself with a pistol, and Isolde slits a wrist before the Liebestod. When the production appeared in Warsaw in June, the Liebestod was sung at a newly created state funeral procession for Tristan. At the Met, Trelinski reverted to the staging used at the March premiere in Baden-Baden, Germany, where Isolde sings to Tristan’s dead body slumped in a chair.
Rattle decided on a second-act cut that reduces the love duet by about 10 minutes to a half-hour. The previous staging by Dieter Dorn that was used from 1999-2008, was always performed uncut by James Levine and then Daniel Barenboim.
Rattle said last week “I’ve been begging the orchestra to be more like chiffon than wool,” and after a pulsating, glistening rendition he was greeted by overwhelming cheers and applause. Some boos were mixed in for Trelinski.
Tenor Stuart Skelton (Tristan), soprano Nina Stemme (Isolde) and bass Rene Pape (King Marke) also received bravos. Stemme, dressed at times walking through fog in a trench coat (think Lauren Bacall) had a glorious, if sometimes unemotional sheen to her voice. Skelton became slightly gravelly in the third act.
“What is asked of the tenor is beyond anything the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals should allow,” Rattle said.
His tenure as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, which began in 2002, ends in 2018, and he starts next September as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. He said plans for a new hall on the Museum of London site near St. Paul’s Cathedral may be put on hold because of the Brexit decision by British voters. Rattle plans to return to the Met for a pair of productions in three years
To prepare for “Tristan,” he studied the marked-up conducting scores of Gustav Mahler and Wilhelm Furtwaengler.
“A mine of information,” Rattle said. “I can’t get them on the phone. The Wi-Fi situation where they are is problematic.”