I try to keep abreast of Hansard but somehow I missed the successful Private Members’ Bill, no doubt championed by the Brexit cabal, which made it mandatory for all London productions of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to be played on sets which had either appalling sightlines or obstacle course challenges for the singers. English National Opera’s hotly anticipated new production breezed past the finishing line on both criteria, so at least it achieved something.
ENO has had a rough year by any standards and desperately needed a copper-bottomed hit to round off a patchy season. The auguries appeared extremely promising: the production marked the return of Edward Gardner to the company he headed so successfully and conducting a composer in whose work he has scored several notable successes, including a truly splendid Meistersinger in early 2015. The ENO orchestra has Wagner in its blood in a royal line stretching back to the Goodall days. The cast heralded the return of Stuart Skelton, justly celebrated for titanic performances in Grimes, Otello and The Flying Dutchman, as well as a series of successes in Wagner parts in Europe and the USA. Skelton recently received positive reviews in the role of Tristan at Baden-Baden and will repeat the role opposite Nina Stemme in the same Mariusz Treliński production when it moves to New York. Opposite him in London was Heidi Melton, another performer with a strong Wagner pedigree, including a very successful Elisabeth at the Proms in 2013 and Sieglinde under both Mehta and Zweden (also recorded). The production was entrusted to the incoming Artistic Director, Daniel Kramer. Kramer’s productions have created some fairly hot controversies in the past – his Josef Fritzl themed Bluebeard’s Castle particularly stands out in the memory. But at least he brought strong ideas and themes to the table and I anticipated a controversial but hard-hitting production.
So why did all these promising ingredients align in a show which at times felt like experiencing a slow-motion car crash? Firstly, and regrettably, one must point the finger very firmly at the appointment of Anish Kapoor as set designer. Kapoor is a prodigiously talented and commercially successful sculptor and artist. But the record of artists designing for opera is littered with disasters. Even Hockney had very patchy success in the medium. Unfortunately Kapoor’s Tristan designs must be added to the roll of casualties on the critical list. Nobody expects a realistic ship in Act I of Tristan these days (although they got a hyper-realistic North Sea ferry from Treliński) but, after a prelude played in front of the safety curtain, the audience was greeted by what appeared to be the inside of a lacquered pyramid. Beautiful in itself, it soon proved to be disastrous for singer blocking. From my Dress Circle seat, barely beyond the stage left quarter mark, Isolde and Brangäne, performing in the stage right section of the set, frequently vanished entirely from my view. Despite the vast size of the Coliseum stage, singers were limited to two cramped performance areas. The central area remained entirely unused – I had assumed that this area would be utilised after the draining of the Liebestrank but no such luck. In an appalling admission of production team failure, the singers merely moved off the set altogether and played the scene on the forestage.
I was seized with a growing dread that this set would be utilised for the whole evening but fortunately Act II revealed an entirely different environment – a massive cross section of a round rock object, possibly a meteorite. As with the previous setting, it was both striking and gorgeous to look at but soon proved a calamitous obstacle course for singers, especially poor Isolde who was hampered by a long, floaty dress. Their task was made still more hazardous by the fact that most of the act is lit from the front by video projections. At one point the projections appeared to be representing a series of fireworks conjuring up the lovers’ ecstasy and excitement. This seems, in terms of subtle allusions, only a couple of steps up from pulsating pink love hearts – that anyone could believe such a thuddingly literal visual metaphor was appropriate for an opera as complex as Tristan und Isolde beggars belief.
The final act was a huge off-white wall with a central rent leading to the interior of the meteorite. Inevitably, with a blank canvas on offer, the video projections went into overdrive with rivers of blood and black shadows of despair. The low point was reached when the already potentially confusing attack on Kareol was rendered completely incomprehensible by the decision to use the projections as programmed follow spots for the characters. Inevitably the unfortunate performers were not able to stay perfectly in sync with the spots, resulting in many disappearing in the gloom.
The most worrying aspect of the production has to be how few ideas Kramer brought to the table as director. Those he had that were original were too often just plain bizarre. Apart from a faintly Japanese tinge, his concept of the central lovers was conventional. Isolde is suicidal from the outset and attempts to slash her wrists only moments after entry. This death-desire infects her relationship with Tristan as they attempt a double hari-kari in the closing moments of the Liebesnacht. Although stretching the point, this at least has justification in the text – mention of the text compels me to mention that I found little to enjoy in the clunky, literal and unpoetic translation. All the more surprising then to find that it was the work of the great Andrew Porter. The Japanese theme was carried through to the end of Act I when Melot and the male chorus, dressed as ninjas, entered the post love-potion scene (instead of singing offstage as written) followed by Marke in full Mikado outfit. Wisely he wasn’t required to perform his great Act II lament in this garb, reverting instead to a fairly standard kingly robe. Worst sufferers by far were the servant classes: Brangäne in Act I appeared to be referencing Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games, in Act II a mad schoolgirl from St. Trinian’s and in Act III possibly a tramp. The lighting by that stage was so dim it was impossible to tell. Kurwenal at least was only required to play one character – unfortunately that character appeared to be Joseph Grimaldi. He minced through Act I including much business with a dustpan and brush, was angry in Act II and in Act III he performed various “comic” routines with a ladder, telescope and flower. By this time Kurwenal/Grimaldi had physically deteriorated so badly that he might have been mistaken for one of the characters from Waiting for Godot or Endgame. Beckett is not such an inappropriate reference point for the final act, if only his bleakness rather than his comic aspects had been explored.
The finale of the opera descended into outright incomprehensibility as Isolde, prematurely old and looking, for all the world, like the late, great Beryl Reid, finally appears and draws Tristan back into the meteorite. The last image that Kramer gives us of both lovers wafting inside is one of such disappointing banality and tear-inducing for all the wrong reasons.
Edward Gardner conducted one of the most beautiful, transparent readings of the score that I can remember and the orchestra played superbly for him. The many exposed solos were taken with distinction. Unfortunately, the price one paid for that lucidity was a lack of surging thrill. Too many moments which should be hair-raising were merely beautiful. The jagged revelation after the taking of the love-potion, so redolent of poison coursing through the lovers’ veins, should pierce the soul but in this case one merely admired the precision of the playing. The emotional cataclysm at the end of the act as the lovers are torn apart, on the other hand, was truly thrilling, with trumpets ranged around the auditorium and the orchestra whipping into a frenzy. The grey bleakness of the Act III prelude was another highlight – the sense of utter despair was almost overwhelming. I suspect the thrills will come more readily as the run progresses but there is already much to relish.
As already mentioned, the cast appeared on paper an enticing prospect but in the event failed to deliver to the levels anticipated. I would prefer to draw a veil over Melton’s first London Isolde as I am pretty certain she was battling a severe indisposition. Having heard her several times over recent years, (including a gleefully evil Eglantine in Frankfurt’s Euryanthe) and always enjoyed her singing, on this occasion I barely recognised her voice. Some good moments stood out but she was clearly in some discomfort for much of the evening. I fervently hope that this is just a momentary blip in her career and she recovers to shine in this role which should suit he so well.
As Tristan, Stuart Skelton is already strong in much of the part – I particularly appreciated the long stretches of quiet singing which were often breathtakingly gorgeous – this is an area frequently sold short by bellowing Heldentenors. His mournful solo near the end of Act II was truly wonderful and agonizingly moving. On this occasion the voice doesn’t cut quite enough in the hideously taxing raving of Act III – too often he was bested by the orchestra. That said, he gets to the end of the act without shouting or barking and the singing remains beautiful. His last “Isolde” was hauntingly lovely. This is early days and he will undoubtedly become a major exponent of the role. It’s worth noting also, in these days of pin-up opera singers, that he looks the very picture of Wagner’s anguished knight.
Karen Cargill, despite the ludicrous costumes and bizarre characterisation foisted on her, was a major pleasure as Brangäne. Her luscious mezzo easily encompasses the extremes of range required and her first tower warning was a wonderful warm bath of sound. It is only sad to note how much more dramatically effective she could have been in a more successful production. Similar sympathy must go to Craig Colclough’s clowning Kurwenal, sung with firm, juicy tone which rather contradicted the brittle character conceived by Kramer.
The performance I enjoyed without reservation, however, was Matthew Rose’s wonderful Marke. The only principal to escape relatively unscathed from directorial whim, he presented a majestically dignified figure and pierced the heart with his grief filled outpourings. And what an unalloyed pleasure to hear the role sung with both power and rich beauty of tone, free from the off-key bellowing that has disfigured several recent Markes of my experience. A total pleasure.
Musically this production has the potential to settle into a more fully satisfying experience. Production-wise, alas, I suspect this will be the latest in a line of never to be revived disasters. ENO cannot afford to go on producing this sort of dud but with Kramer in charge one wonders where the company is heading.
Music – 3 stars
Production – 1 star
(Photos : Catherine Ashmore)