Tristan and Isolde
English National Opera
Coliseum. 22 June 2016
On the eve of the EU in-out referendum, it seemed appropriate to see English National Opera’s take on Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in which, in a post-Brexit world, Tristan fails to get the correct Visa to land in Ireland and is further delayed by his attempts at getting a Visa to allow Isolde to travel back with him to Cornwall, and then by having to negotiate a new formal trade agreement for transferring Princesses between an EU state and the ex-EU Cornish republic. The collapse of the cooperative EU policing and health agreements means drugged-drink crime goes unpunished and everybody dies in the end.
Or something like that.
English National Opera so often gets close to producing something spectacular that will silence all its critics. And like several other recent shows, this could so easily have been it. Musically it was a triumph, with excellent playing from the ENO orchestra, fine singing from soloists and chorus and sensitive conducting from their former music director Edward Gardner, returning to conduct this monumental work. Daniel Kramer, ENO’s new artistic director, at least had a stab at making sense of this complex work. My first problem is with Wagner himself, particularly his libretto. Sung in English, Wagner’s text, here translated by Andrew Porter, is frequently impenetrable and on many of the occasions when it can be penetrated, appears, at least to me, to be nonsense. As a non-German speaker, I would have preferred to have heard it in German when the language could merely acts as a colouring to the vocal contribution to Wagner’s vast score.
Musically Wagner’s score is undeniably a masterpiece, even allowing for its enormous length. There were times this evening when just closing my eyes and letting the music work its magic seemed the right thing to do. Whether you view it as representing an impressive representation of coitus interruptus, the desperate attempt of the half-diminished seventh ‘Tristan’ chord to find resolution, a musical response to Schopenhauer’s rethinking of Kant, an insight into some sort of weird self-harming death cult, or the confused outpourings of a man in love with another man’s wife is neither hear nor there. Either way, Wagner’s music has a life of its own that supersedes anything else that happens on stage. And that was the success of the evening, with an outstanding singing, notably from Stuart Skelton as Tristan and Matthew Rose as King Mark.
But it was in the direction, and the choice of Anish Kapoor as set designer, that my concern lies. Kapoor set’s, although characteristically spectacular frequently got in the way, rather than aided the staging. The first act stage was divided sharply into three sections in such a way that the action had to take place at the very front of the stage if the audience were to be able to see it. So we had Tristan in the right segment, Isolde to the left, and the central one awaiting the eventual arrival of King Mark right at the end of the act. The second act was set in a gigantic representation of a cave, set in a sphere that left me wondering how on earth do they manage to get it on stage, and where do they put it when, as in this case, they had to stage Jenůfa the following evening. A distraction. The third act placed a gashed screen in front of the cave, generally splashed by blood.
The directorial oddities are too many to cover. The two protagonists spent the entire first act getting dressed in increasingly bizarre outfits, before ripping them off at the end of the act. King Mark first appeared looking as though he had been glued to a tree. In the great love scene, both Tristan and Isolde seemed to spend most of the time trying to avoid each other, managing little more than an occasional hand-hold as they clamoured around the rocky cleft. Kurwenal and Brangäne formed a double act of toe-curling awkwardness, camping it up or in pantomime-dame mode. Why?
I could go on.
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