Friday, 10 June 2016

ENO's Tristan strikes the wrong chord

There was probably going to be a time when I saw a production of an opera that was trying just too, too hard.

Unfortunately, it happened at the London Coliseum, at last night’s opening of the English National Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

It’s difficult to know where to start, so probably best to do so at the beginning.

The orchestra under Edward Gardner was in good form – the prelude was beautiful, if perhaps a tad slow. But that would be being overly picky and, given what followed, I’m determined to grasp at all available straws.

The sets have been designed by world-renowned artist Anish Kapoor, and Act I takes place within a series of three triangular boxes.

This is good: it bolsters a sense of the divide between the lovers – including a divide of social convention – with a void between them for most of the act. It also has drama.

The metallic surfaces reflect light superbly and glow. I rather assumed that we would continue with something similar throughout, since it seemed set to convey Wagner’s ideas around night and day very well.

It might have needed to be built a little more strongly, though, since a bit of early business between Kurwenal and Brangäne gave one section a severe shaking. And some of the audience apparently missed out on some of the ‘action’ as the walls created blocked sightlines.

But oh, the ‘business’. As one young member of the audience noted to me in the first interval, it was all very “distracting”.

Nice set – shame about the costumes
In their respective compartments, Tristan and Isolde are dressed by their servants, bit by painful and inexplicable bit: he as a Samurai warrior, she in a ridiculously over-large crinoline – only for both of them to cast off these garments the  minute that King Mark turns up.

A King Mark of Cornwall, that is, who had apparently wandered into the Mikado dressing room and emerged on stage as an aged Japanese emperor.

Given that Kurwenal and Brangäne were attired and made up as Restoration fops, this was a cultural mash up on speed.

There was, of course, the music. And Wagner’s music is sublime.

On the singing front, Craig Colcough as Kurwenal and Karen Cargill as Brangäne gave wonderful vocal accounts; one can easily conceive of the latter as an Isolde herself.

Stuart Skelton as Tristan is a fine tenor who seemed wooden in the first act in particular, but probably in large part because he was having to act the mannequin as he was dressed.

Heidi Melton is clearly a good dramatic singer, but there is a tightness in her voice in the upper registers, and she lacks the tonal warmth of Cargill.

But if Kapoor’s first-act design worked well, the second act was less convincing – then again, it suffered from crackpot direction that no amount of design could have salvaged.

Daniel Kramer may be in the process of taking over the reins at an ENO that is struggling, on and off stage, but on the basis of this production, that does not give great cause for optimism.

Why, oh why, oh why would you have the lovers play out the great love scene in Act II as though they’re mentally-ill self-harmers?

One could say that ecstatic love is akin to a form of mental illness, but in the context of this work, using the idea of self-harm does two things.

First, it diminishes the power of the love that is central to Wagner’s vision.

Second, it buys into the idea of the final part of the opera as a ‘liebestod’ – literally, a love of death.

That was not something that Wagner ever called it or intended. Isolde does not die at the end, but experiences a transfiguration to join Tristan on some eternal plane.

Love on a gurney – watched by an old man
Now you’re welcome to say that that’s bonkers, but the whole point of Tristan and Isolde is this extraordinary, transcendantal love – are we now so cynical and so enamoured of victim porn that we have to see it like this, with the lovers themselves as damaged, vulnerable human beings who need to be protected (strapped to a hospital bed) for their own sakes?

I skipped the final act. I realised that there was simply no way that I could make my first live ‘liebestod’ this one.

Later, via social media, I was informed that I was “lucky”.

But not only did Kramer’s direction leave me cold, I have absolutely no idea what costume designer Christina Cunningham was thinking. Okay – I have a little with the dandified servants (overweening court officials), but once you’re straining to find a rationale, you’re in trouble.

As to the Samurai and Japanese costumes – I can only guess that this is some convoluted way of hinting at ritual suicide and thus, again, playing to the whole idea of the love being a love of death.

And why was King Mark played as such an elderly man? In the story, hes the uncle of a teenage Tristan, so hardly has to be ancient. Was this an attempt to make the audience consider the potential consummation of his marriage to Isolde as akin to child abuse?

The problem here seems to be: get a world-known artist to design the sets (knowing this will get attenntion), skimp on the leading singers and season with gimmicks.

Perversely, perhaps, my ear was in practice enough to really appreciate, for the first time live, the marriage between word and music – something that Wagner strived to make completely organic.

What a shame that such a moment of personal development came in such a dismal production.

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