Monday, 20 June 2016

Work in progress - Tristan and Isolde at ENO

ENO - Tristan and Isolde, Act 3 - Stuart-Skelton - photo Catherine Ashmore
ENO - Tristan and Isolde, Act 3 - Stuart Skelton - photo Catherine Ashmore
Wagner Tristan and Isolde; Heidi Melton, Stuart Skelton, Matthew Rose, Karen Cargill, Craig Colclough, dir; Daniel Kramer, cond: Edward Gardner; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 19 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A surfeit of ideas, striking visual images and promising musical performances

ENO - Tristan and Isolde, Act 2 - Heidi Melton, Stuart Skelton - photo Catherine Ashmore
Tristan & Isolde, Act 2 - Heidi Melton, Stuart Skelton
photo Catherine Ashmore
Interest in English National Opera's new production of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde increased enormously when it was announced that its director, Daniel Kramer, would become ENO's next artistic director. Though the presence of the artist Anish Kapoor as designer also helped to spark interest. We saw the production on its third outing on Sunday 19 June 2016, with Stuart Skelton as Tristan, Heidi Melton as Isolde, Karen Cargill as Brangane, Matthew Rose as King Mark, Craig Colclough as Kurwenal and Stephen Rooke as Melot. Anish Kapoor designed the sets (associate set designer Justin Nardella), with costumes by Christina Cunningham, lighting by Paul Anderson and video by Frieder Weiss. The opera was sung in Andrew Porter's English translation.

I have to confess that some of my most memorable performances of Tristan and Isolde have been those where the involvement of a director was minimal; a late 1982 revival of Peter Hall's 1971 production at Covent Garden simply relied on having two great singing actors in the title roles to make its impact (Jon Vickers and Gwynneth Jones, conducted by Colin Davis). By contrast Kramer and Kapoor's production was full of ideas, rather over full, and more importantly seemed not to take into account having two singers relatively new to their roles and singing in the huge expanse of the London Coliseum.

Act One worked well, Kapoor's pyramid structure gave three clearly defined spaces and provided plenty of hard surfaces, in fact this act worked best musically and dramatically. Cunningham's costumes were over-elaborate, with Kramer making much of the ritual of dressing the principals for their ceremonial encounter with King Mark; Tristan as a quasi Japanese warrior, Isolde in a great hooped skirt. Neither costume was flattering to the singer and as they ripped the costumes off at the end, an element of the ridiculous crept in.

Act Two presented us with a huge hemisphere, the interior of which was filled with a quasi lunar landscape (or evoked an 18th century grotto). This was where Tristan and Isolde went during the love-duet. Clearly intended to signal the sense of other in the duet, it was distracting to see the two singers (both substantial of frame) clambering carefully about the rocks when you wanted to pay attention to the music. And I did wonder what Kapoor's structure did to the acoustical properties of the set, surely something reflective with plenty of hard surfaces would have proved beneficial to the young Wagnerian voices. It was ironic that, after the end of a love-duet which is more death wish than love-in, when Tristan and Isolde are confined in hospital beds Kramer's movement calmed down and he came up with some highly expressive yet simple theatre which made Tristan and Isolde's final moments in this act extremely powerful.

ENO - Tristan and Isolde, Act 1 - Karen Cargill, Heidi Melton, Matthew Rose, Stephen Rooke, Craig Colclough Stuart Skelton - photo Catherine Ashmore
Tristan & Isolde, Act 1 - Karen Cargill, Heidi Melton, Matthew Rose, Stephen Rooke, Craig Colclough Stuart Skelton - photo Catherine Ashmore
For Act Three at least, Stuart Skelton had a firm wall to sing his great solo against. But this had a huge wound-shaped gash in the middle (with video of flowing blood at the climaxes of the solo), though which we could see the lunar landscape still. As death approached, Skelton climbed into the gash, and Melton had to sing the Liebestod from behind the gap in the wall. Conceptually this worked, on death they retreated to the lunar landscape, but it had a disastrous effect on Melton's voice and you just longed for her to be able to come down-stage and sing the Liebestod properly rather than having it occluded by all the acoustical diversions of the set.

There were other strange penseés along the way. Brangäne and Kurwenal were got up as commedia dell'arte figures, so that in Act One there was much camp-mincing, and the opening of Act Three had Colclough's sad-clown Kurwenal going repeated through a piece of business with a set of steps. Kramer's big idea though was that the Act Two duet was a real death wish, so King Mark's entry was marred by a great deal too much business with medical teams and hospital beds, as Tristan and Isolde were revived. And by Act Three, everyone was very, very old; clearly it had taken an eternity for Brangäne to tell the truth to King Mark.

ENO - Tristan and Isolde, Act 3 - Craig Colclough Stuart Skelton - photo Catherine Ashmore
Tristan & Isolde, Act 3 - Craig Colclough Stuart Skelton
photo Catherine Ashmore
Whether ENO will ever be able to afford to revive this production is a moot point, I suppose it depends on how well Kramer does wearing his artistic director hat. But it is a production that needs reviving, so that Kramer can simplify. He should learn that less is more with Wagner, and if your singers are large then very much less.

Musically the evening was somewhat mixed. The strongest act was the first, here Heidi Melton seemed at her most confident. The curse was well done and Gardner kept the act moving so that there was a real sense of an arc to the drama, with brilliant contributions from both singers during the closing scene. Within the concept of the production, Cargill and Colclough were admirable, and whatever you though of the commedia dell'arte idea, Cargill gave us an exceptional Brangäne.

Worryingly in the opening scenes of Act Two, Melton gave us some uncomfortably raw notes at the top of the stave, and frankly much of the love duet was only creditable if a bit uninteresting. Both singers gave us a performance which was a bit too generalised, perhaps all the clambering about distracted Melton and Skelton from concentrating on each other, though I think here Gardner's tempos seemed a bit relaxed and it was only at the very end that the passion really whipped up. The duet was, I think, cut but in the circumstances I can't complain too much. Matthew Rose as King Mark was simply outstanding. I have usually found this solo a problematical, but here Rose gave us an example of how less is more in Wagner, making 10 minutes of real music drama (with crisp words too).

ENO - Tristan and Isolde, Act 3 - Heidi Melton, Stuart Skelton - photo Catherine Ashmore
ENO - Tristan and Isolde, Act 3 - Heidi Melton, Stuart Skelton
photo Catherine Ashmore
Skelton paced himself well so that though the great solo in Act Three clearly took him to his limit, he had enough reserve to take him through. He did not really sear the way great Tristan's do, and perhaps he was worried a little too much about beauties of tone quality. But real intensity is something which can develop with further stage experience in the role (and perhaps more sympathetic theatre acoustics). Colclough made a moving enough Kurwenal, if you cope with him being an elderly clown rather than a former military man. From what I could hear of Melton's Liebestod, her performance was simply too generalised. Throughout the opera Gardner had kept the orchestra on a relatively tight rein so that the voices were not covered, but at the end he gave the orchestra its head. The top of Melton's voice lacks the bright cutting edge of a great Isolde, something she needs to work on. As I have said, her placement in the problematic set did not help, and there were moments when the orchestra covered her uncomfortably.

The smaller roles were admirably taken with Stephen Rooke as a strong Melot, David Webb as the sailor, Peter Van Hulle as the Shepherd and Paul Sheehan as the helmsman.

The orchestra played well for Edward Gardner and there were plenty of good things in the pit. But Gardner's sense of overall architectural control seemed not as strong as in his previous Wagner outing here (Die Meistersinger), perhaps because he was aiming for the sort of slow intense type of performance which his young Wagnerians were not able to deliver yet.

It was lovely to hear the Andrew Porter translation in use, rather than something more modish. From the fifth row of the stalls, we could hear a lot of words but I was uncertain how much would travel to the rest of the theatre.

In many ways this was a work in progress. But of interesting ideas and good things, but not yet a finished work. Both Heidi Melton and Stuart Skelton are still developing in their roles. Melton should think twice about further developing her Isolde, before getting more jugend-dramatisch experience, and next time she should sing the role in a far smaller house. Skelton's first outing as Tristan in London had a lot going for it, and I look forward to catching his performance in a few years time when this fine artist has had chance to develop the role further.

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