Thursday, 7 July 2016

A Tristan to drive you insane (ENO/Tristan)

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (Edward Gardner cond. ENO, Coliseum)
If romping in Seville (Friday 1st July) was an upper, the misery in Cornwall (2nd July) which followed was a most exquisite downer. For three mornings I woke up somewhere in the middle of Tristan. Tuesday morning it was the liebesnacht. And I blame the ENO production; it isn’t perfect but it is gripping.
Act I (Image ENO)
This production had many strengths. The vocal powerhouses of Stuart Skelton as Tristan and Heidi Melton are star attractions. When translation and staging allow them, they offer supreme singing. Skelton already is an acknowledged top-drawer Wagnerian tenor; Melton is likely to join him very soon. When Melton was moving higher her vocal power was striking. Matthew Rose was a real dream as King Marke. Perhaps most haunting was Brangaene’s (Karen Cargill)offstage warnings in  act two, which have an ability to touch a part of one’s soul which only Brangaene’s warnings can. The perfect colouring of these made these as prophetic as Erda but much warmer. Anish Kapoor’s sets were visually stunning. Act I was a sort of golden-coloured reverse-panopticon tryptic. Act II was a giant head/geode/planet which revolved to show the back after the liebesnacht (our lovers were insane). Act III saw a white screen with heart-shaped aperture on to that black which absorbs light (the right to which process I believe Kapoor owns, and of which this is a superb use).
Yet there were some big problems. Firstly, ludicrous costumes, most especially the rococo business( like leftovers from Saul) raised titters as Brangaene tottered in. The sets and perpetual motion demanded of singers prevented Heidi and Stuart from singing the libebesnacht with the breath-taking skill we know they can. Don’t get me wrong this was dark and erotic, but it just didn’t quite get there. Appropriately enough. 

An uncomfortable position for liebesnacht (ENO)
Then Tristan was thrashing about during Libestod: he’s dead, or opera doesn’t work. It was also at this moment that the translation let down Melton as it didn’t let her produce the right shape of sound with the English words. Anyone who requires a translation of that final, tender, devastating moment needs their soul replacing. And it was in this moment which the production did the most unforgivable thing: during the liebestod, Kramer – the great hope of ENO, had Tristan thrash about. This is simply beyond reason: it fundamentally changes the meaning of the opera. Tristan is dead, not in his death throes; otherwise is would simply be liebes. Without it, there is no erotic love death, and everything crumbles. The couple achieve satisfaction in the resolution of the Tristan chord but Tristan was alive and kicking. So I just shut my eyes and let those final bars do their work.
From the pit, Gardner got some special things from the orchestra. The first act was full of malice and threat, and it was obvious it wouldn’t end well. The second was deeply erotic, and the tragedy of the third was done perfectly. It’s just Kramer about whom I am deeply worried. ENO itself might well be somewhere on the way to its liebesnacht if he pulls off many more like this. He obviously doesn’t understand the opera. The libes without nacht would make this an entirely different opera All this made for a moving and memorable production. 
A decent amount of gore (ENO)
But I have to ask a question: would I have preferred to go and see a Kapoor exhibition and then a concert performance of Tristan with this cast. Something like Opera North’s dramatic concert performances of the Ring (everyone has been calling them semi-staged, I am pretty sure including their publicity material, but Farnes rebuked all on radio the other night: they are dramatic concert performances. With this cast? In a heartbeat.
Until 9th July
Astonishingly, despite cast and Kapoor, not in cinemas. Another mistake by Cressida.
Cast and Team:
Director: Daniel Kramer
Conductor: Edward Gardner
Set designer: Anish Kapoor
Associate Set Designer- Justin Nardella
Costume designer: Christina Cunningham
Lighting: Paul Anderson
Frieder Weiss: Video Designer
Tristan: Stuart Skelton
Isolde: Heidi Melton
King Marke: Matthew Rose
Kurwenal: Craig Colclough
Brangäne: Karen Cargill
Melot: Stephen Rooke
A Young Sailor: David Webb
A Shepherd: Peter van Hulle
A Helmsman: Paul Sheehan

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