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Reviews

17 Jun 2016

Tristan, English National Opera

My first Tristan, indeed my first Wagner, in the theatre was ENO’s previous staging of the work, twenty years ago, in 1996. The experience, as it should, as it must, although this is alas far from a given, quite overwhelmed me.

Tristan, English National Opera

A review by Mark Berry

 

Whether it would now is beside the point: I have no way of knowing and could not, would not go without a considerable number of Tristan- and Wagner-experiences in between. ENO’s new Tristan has its faults, but it also has far from negligible virtues. If the acid test might be said to be whether it reminds one that Tristan is, will surely always be, the greatest musical drama of all - with, that is, the possible exception of the St Matthew Passion, depending on how one considers Bach’s supreme masterpiece - then ENO succeeded not so very far off triumphantly. Given the strength of the company’s enemies within and without, that success deserves trumpeting loudly.

There are certainly some very good things in Daniel Kramer’s production. I use that somewhat limp phrase deliberately, for the overriding impression, or at least an overriding impression, is that it would benefit from revision, from a strong hand that would enable greater coherence and ruthless elimination of the irrelevant. (The latter is perhaps the worst foe of all in Tristan: remember Christof Loy? If not, do keep it that way.) In retrospect, it is the first act that stands out as seemingly from another production. Give or take the division of the stage into Isolde’s world and Tristan’s, strongly reminiscent of Herbert Wernicke’s excellent Covent Garden production, absurdly dispensed with in order to prepare the way for Loy, it seems really to be a straightforward, almost ‘traditional’ staging. I have no problem with that; it lets the work speak, and there is much to be said for that. Whatever one does with Tristan, one is ill-advised indeed to do something to it. Its status as an almost entirely metaphysical drama renders it curiously, almost uniquely, impervious, to such Konzept­-driven treatment. (Or at least it has done so in my experience: it is foolish and indeed absurd to rule things out ‘in principle’.) Alas, Kramer has a bizarre mini-concept, or whatever we want to call it, concerning Kurwenal. Of any character in opera, I find it difficult to think of a less camp specimen. Undoing or undercutting conventional views of masculinity might be an interesting project here, but simply turning him into a camp monstrosity, dressed, like Brangäne, as if he were a refugee from a highly stylised presentation of Alice in Wonderland, is bizarre and, frankly, extremely irritating. He spends a good deal of time and energy spraying perfume, or air-freshener, or something at Tristan before the latter’s confrontation with Isolde. To what end? I am afraid I have no idea. Something, I think, to be eliminated from the revival I hope will come. The very peculia costumes (in themselves well designed by Christina Cunningham, but again, to what end?) would benefit from rethinking en masse.

In the second and third acts, Anish Kapoor’s striking designs do a great deal - perhaps a little too much? - of the work. The lack of specificity is no bad thing. Tristan is certainly not about Cornwall. (Imagine a Tory-UKIP production, in which the whole problem never arises, because Cornwall’s borders are ‘secure’ and our ‘migrants’ are never able to disembark thanks to Theresa May’s ‘tough’ stance on immigration. Or rather, do not.) The love duet takes place in something not so very far removed from what Wagner stipulates; the landscape supplies its own, neo-Romantic (quasi-lunar?) magic and ‘beauty’, without becoming ‘the thing’, which is surely as it should be. The death-wish, that sickest Romanticism-cum-Schopenhauerism, which pervades the whole work is intelligently brought out in Kramer’s vision of neurotic self-harm. It certainly convinces far better than the unbearable dullness - it might work as Konzept, but in the theatre, with this most particular, resistant of works? - of Christoph Marthaler’s Bayreuth production. If the hospital beds and physical restraining of the final scene are perhaps a little too overt, I did not find them unforgivably so. For English audiences, notoriously resistant to modern musico-dramatic theatre, there is sometimes something to be said for spelling things out (although preferably not in this particular work). Again, the costumes are weird: here almost Dr Who-like. Again, rethinking for a revival, so as to bring out more strongly what matters? We can but hope.

The central ideas of the third act are strong too, Kapoor’s designs and Frieder Weiss’s video providing an æsthetically inviting setting and a necessary visual confrontation with the sapping away of Tristan’s life force respectively. One would hardly be able to avoid, in the case of the latter, Tristan’s loss of blood; the way in which it both horrifies and yet remains a thing of compelling beauty is surely quite in the spirit of the work. It complements the score without overshadowing it, very much what is required. Paul Anderson’s lighting, excellent throughout the evening, offers just the right mixture of subtlety and night-day contrast. The neo-Beckettian direction Kramer offers seems far more appropriate than the strange distractions of the first act. If the attempt at transfiguration does not entirely succeed, that is at least in part Wagner’s fault. He almost gets away with it, but the rupture with tonality, with reality, with pretty much anything and everything should have been so extreme during Tristan’s monologue that Isolde’s Verklärung both enraptures and misses the point. I have yet to see a production that took quite such an Adornian line, although Peter Konwitschny arguably comes close at times, whilst also veering in completely the opposite direction; here, in a broadly traditional sense, Kramer characterises the act pretty well as a whole.

Edward Gardner led a largely successful, often highly ‘theatrical’ account of the score. Its metaphysical basis might have suffered somewhat, but does it not always when Furtwängler, or at least Carlos Kleiber, cannot make it? On its own terms, whilst sometimes considerably driven (echoes perhaps of Böhm, if not quite with his symphonic, post-Beethovenian grounding?), there was considerable give and take, a sense of melos much stronger than his Meistersinger, and a well-judged balance between the requirements of the moment and those of the greater line. If the orchestra sounded at times a little thin, especially in string sound, during the first act, it played for the most part magnificently. Even earlier on, there was to the playing a productive, ever-surprising physicality, a true sense of bow touching string and sparking off something one cannot, should not put into words. The offstage (in-theatre) brass at the end of the first act was a mistake: far too loud, far too much a distracting ‘effect’, but such things are worth trying, at the very least. Some outstanding woodwind playing was greatly valued, not least, of course, the expert English horn solo in the third act (Helen Vigurs).

Stuart Skelton’s performance in the title role showed just how much this generous artist has to give in Wagner (and not just in Wagner). He made everything he could out of the words, out of the notes, and out of the mysterious alchemy Wagner here achieves between them. If he seemed a little tired onstage, although not vocally, later on during the third act, that may readily be forgiven; indeed, it offers its own dramatic justification. I have said this before, and fear that I shall have to say it again: it is frankly beyond belief that Covent Garden offers Skelton nothing, especially when one considers the Wagner tenors it has continued to inflict upon us. Heidi Melton was strongest during the first act. Again, she made much of the words, although some of her vowels were decidedly peculiar; however, some of her singing later on was distressing in quite the wrong way. She seemed miscast, unduly stretched by the role. Karen Cargill, on the other hand, made for a lovely Brangäne indeed, despite the bizarre nature of her treatment by the production. This was someone in whom one would readily confide, beauty of tone part of the dramatic assumption rather than a thing-in-itself. I wondered whether we might have been better off with her as Isolde. Craig Colclough suffered more from the production than anyone else, but his Kurwenal managed vocally to rise far above such limitations. His third-act Beckettian best-friend portrayal, true nobility of tone again very much part and parcel of what we saw and felt dramatically, was one of the most moving aspects of the entire performance. Likewise Matthew Rose’s dignified - if oddly, coldly treated by Kramer - King Marke. It is, I think, a more difficult thing to sing this part, arguably any of these parts, in English than in German. Rose, like the rest of the cast, but perhaps more so still, made one of the best cases in practice for performance in the vernacular I can recall hearing. Here, for once, was that vaunted dramatic immediacy, with the outstanding diction it requires. The smaller roles were all taken very well indeed, David Webb’s Sailor song setting the scene with considerable distinction. All in all, this is a Tristan that deserves to be seen, still more to be heard.

Mark Berry

Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

Tristan: Stuart Skelton; Isolde: Heidi Melton; King Marke: Matthew Rose; Kurwenal: Craig Colclough; Melot: Stephen Rooke; Brangäne: Karen Cargill; Shepherd: Peter van Hulle; Steersman: Paul Sheehan; Young Sailor: David Webb. Director: Daniel Kramer; Set designs: Anish Kapoor; Costumes: Christina Cunningham; Lighting: Paul Anderson; Video: Frieder Weiss. Orchestra and Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Harris) of the English National Opera/Edward Gardner (conductor). Coliseum, London, Thursday 9 June 2016.

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