Tristan and Isolde is an opera you can throw a lot at without overwhelming it, as I discovered when I saw it for the first time at The Royal Opera House a few years ago. Ben Heppner, singing Tristan, was ill and had to walk the role – essentially mime it onstage – while Swedish tenor Lars Cleveman sang from the wings. It was impossible to ignore the fact that the guy declaring undying love for Isolde was hiding behind a curtain, while another guy flailed around onstage, flapping his mouth like a fish. Yet somehow, despite the ridiculousness of it all, I found myself moved to tears at the end.
It turns out the opera’s resilience is a definite bonus because ENO’s new production throws a lot more than an ailing tenor at it. That’s not to say it isn’t a powerful production, full of good moments – just that it succeeds despite much of the excess baggage, not because of it.
Let’s start with Anish Kapoor’s sets. They’re certainly stunning and add a huge amount to the visual spectacle but, largely, don’t do anything to add to the drama or illuminate the characters clambering about on them. That goes for the direction and costumes too. At best they’re interesting but at worst a downright distraction. The Royal Opera’s recent Lucia di Lammermoor showed how clever use of costume can amplify meaning and bring real depth to a scene. Although Christina Cunningham’s costumes for Tristan are striking, they don’t bring a great deal to the party and ultimately pose a lot of questions there don’t seem to be any answers for. I sense a theme developing here.
Given that Tristan is four hours long and very little actually happens onstage, it must be tempting to give people things to do (or wear) to keep the action moving, but there’s always the risk of obscuring the line of the drama or just becoming a distraction. That happens all too often in this production. Why do Tristan and Isolde spend a laborious fifteen minutes in the first act getting dressed, only to hurriedly undress as soon as King Mark arrives? Why is Tristan kitted out as a Samurai and why do Kurwenal and Brangane start the evening as foppish clowns and end it as Beckett extras? The result is an opera that takes the whole of the first act to warm up.
Thankfully, when it does get going, the results are far, far better. Stuart Skelton is a wonderful singer, never anything less than compelling and watchable. Following on from this run at ENO he’s opening the Metropolitan Opera’s 2016/17 season in the role under Simon Rattle. They’re in for a treat.
Heidi Melton’s Isolde also had some fabulous moments, although she struggled in places. Karen Cargill and Craig Colclough were both excellent as sidekicks Brangane and Kurwenal, despite some truly awful stage direction to contend with. Special mention must also go to Matthew Rose (King Mark). I’m always delighted to read a cast list and see his name on it and he’s never disappointed yet.
Edward Gardner got some glorious sounds out of the ENO orchestra and it was great to hear them get the biggest ovation of the night. There were a few slow passages, which added to the sluggishness created by the sheer weight of baggage piled on the opera, but overall this is a musically strong production.
Maybe Tristan and Isolde is able to cope with a lot of superfluous baggage because relatively little happens, so it’s able to succeed entirely on its musical merits, whatever’s happening on stage. Maybe I’ve just been lucky that the productions I’ve seen have managed to overcome serious obstacles and shine nevertheless.
Either way, by the end of five and a half hours in the Coliseum I didn’t find myself moved to tears, but there’s a lot to admire in this production and the first night audience was overwhelmingly in favour, judging by the applause at the curtain call. Is this an essential not-to-be-missed production of Tristan? No. Would I go and see it again? Yes.
English National Opera’s Tristan and Isolde at the London Coliseum until July 9th. For more information and tickets please visit the website.