Tristan and Isolde at the English National Opera

The new production of Tristan at the English National Opera (seen June 15, 2016) is very good indeed, and I’m sure a relief to all fans of this wonderful institution.  It was in this auditorium that I first experienced the Ring under Goodall – and, ironically, this performance of Tristan was dedicated to Alberto Remedios, Goodall’s Siegfried, who died on June 11.  I also saw a Tristan here 20 years ago, far less successful than this one.  With this production, performed in translation by Andrew Porter, the recently beleaguered ENO affirms its unique stature as a contributor to the English-language Wagner scene, and claims its right to continued support.

The production, by recently-appointed Artistic Director Daniel Kramer, is in general clear and direct.  Sets by sculptor Anish Kappor, with extraordinary lighting by Paul Anderson, were assertive but not intrusive.  That can’t be said for Christina Cunningham’s costumes, which at the most garish moment at the end of Act I included Isolde in a 17th century farthingale, Kurvenal in a duck-tailed 18th century fop’s outfit, a similar School-for-Scandal get-up for Brangane (made of a leather-like fabric that might suggest erotic playtimes), Tristan in full samurai warrior gear, and King Marke entering with a very high Imperial Japanese headpiece.  It obscured rather than revealing the characters and their circumstances.

Certainly the most interesting interpretation that Kramer offers in this production is the idea that the lovers meet in Act II with the intention of fulfilling a suicide pact.  Isolde is seen cutting herself in Act I, and both engage in deliberate vein-opening towards the end of the duet in Act II, requiring immediate medical attention upon their discovery.  It is a perfectly legitimate reading of the text – they do, after all, state continually that they yearn for darkness and death together, and seek to avoid the day’s approach.  I’m not sure whether actually depicting these yearnings perhaps oversteps taste and risks redirecting the audience away from mysticism and towards tourniquets, but I do like legitimate new interpretations and this certainly was one.

The level of music-making throughout the evening was very satisfying, and during Act II positively inspirational.  Conductor Edward Gardner seemed arterially connected with the excellent Stuart Skelton and the attentive and gifted Heidi Marton, and with such careful and full-blooded attention the constantly surprising score shone through with all its intrigue.  Matthew Rose, who played the Watchman at the Met’s Meistersinger last December, was a superlative King Marke, and Stephen Rooke repeated the excellent Melot that I saw last July in Longborough.  Craig Colclough was encouraged to approach Kurwenal as the Fool to Tristan’s Lear.  At times it worked and at times it didn’t.  No such variability in his singing, though, and he and Karen Cargill (as a splendid Brangane) offered performances of international quality.

Skelton is now firmly of that stature, and his Tristan was exactly what you hope to hear when you buy a ticket.  Perhaps not more, but that accomplishment alone is sufficient to merit the loud ovations he received.  Heidi Melton was criticized in the opening night reviews for flagging as the evening wore on, and I detected not a bit of it throughout her extraordinarily powerful and musical performance – until the Liebestod itself, which she was unable to deliver adequately for reasons that I cannot possibly speculate upon.  The powerful and sensitive work of the ENO orchestra was enthusiastically and deservedly acknowledged by the crowd.

As I say, the ENO has been sorely tested in recent years and one hopes that the home of Reginald Goodall can survive these troubled times and, with this and subsequent productions, reassert itself once again as the uniquely exciting home of English-language Wagner performed at an international level of quality.

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