Three decades after being canonized for his Bayreuth Ring, Patrice Chéreau finally tackled Tristan und Isolde. To judge by this film of the premiere on December 7, 2007, at the Teatro alla Scala, the production fell short of revelation.
The scenic designer, as for Chéreau's Ring, was Richard Peduzzi. All three acts unfold before the same blank fortress wall. A deck that might be a factory floor, scattered cargo, distant trees beyond a gate, a lantern on high — such details are added as the action requires or the director's fancy dictates. Some of the extras wear quilted body armor of vaguely medieval cast, but mostly the wardrobe, by Moidele Bickel, runs to unbuttoned trench coats. A scarlet mantle for Isolde comes into play briefly, lending the show its single accent of bold color in a monotonous palette of midnight blue. Someone has given far too much thought to hair treatments.
Naturalism is the predominant dramatic vocabulary, punctuated by gestures that are grandly Romantic. For other directors, Waltraud Meier — heard in blazing form — has portrayed Isolde in stillness, as if the part were one giant interior monologue. This time, the pent-up emotions find release in facial expressions of cinematic subtlety and movement that is lifelike and free. Her mocking reenactments of Tristan's imagined dialogues with King Marke are especially rich in this regard. More typically, though, Meier will ponder an existential conundrum, knitting her brow like a second Garbo, then melt into wan contentment as if glimpsing dim light at the end of the tunnel. Ian Storey's Tristan, built like a lumberjack with the face of CSI's William Petersen, stands his ground with robust, manly grace, then falls flat to the floor to kiss Isolde's hem. Matti Salminen paints a brutish Marke, laying a rough hand on Melot, grabbing Isolde like an errant concubine, but docile at Tristan's embrace. Michelle DeYoung's Brangäne, done up as Isolde's aged, balding nurse, totters and fidgets. Supers hover, fret or rush about on urgent business, heedless of principals such as Gerd Grochowski's Kurwenal, who is mostly just in the way.
Musically, the big news is Storey's first Tristan, sung in a voice that modulates easily to conversational intimacy yet rises readily to the climaxes. By sound alone, many or even most exponents of the role locate the core of Tristan's being in a pinched, existential angst. Storey's sweeter timbre conveys a longing and capacity for heart's ease that suffuse not only the Liebesnacht but even Tristan's Act III delirium with radiance. It is a transformative interpretation, a fully worthy foil to Meier's seasoned, ever-new Isolde.
Salminen's harsh singing is of a piece with his reading of his character. DeYoung chews her words while struggling with a wide vibrato. Grochowski, the hairdresser's worst casualty, is much given to shouting. Daniel Barenboim, though second to none in this score, may be a notch or two less convincing than on his best nights in Bayreuth and Berlin or (more recently) at the Met.
On the video, quick fadeouts keep interrupting the cinematic flow like the slow blinking of a sleepy eye, which is an annoyance. Is the lighting designer to blame? Other poor choices rest squarely with the video editor. In defiance of Wagner, who put the orchestra out of sight, the filmmakers invade the pit freely, sometimes even when the curtain is up. An artery bursts on Isolde's brow early in the Liebestod and keeps pumping blood until her collapse. Of course the camera watches all this. But it is Barenboim who gets the last close-up, soft fingers pinching sound to silence.
Meier, DeYoung; Storey, Salminen, Grochowski; Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala, Barenboim. Production: Chéreau. Virgin Classics 5 0999 5 19315 99, 257 mins., subtitled