Tristan und Isolde

Reginald Goodall
English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
22 August 1981
Coliseum London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanAlberto Remedios
IsoldeLinda Esther Gray
BrangäneFelicity Palmer
KurwenalNorman Bailey
König MarkeJohn Tomlinson
MelotGeoffrey William Chard
Ein junger SeemannAdrian Martin
Ein HirtStuart Kale
SteuermannSean Rea
The Spectator

The ENO season opened with a new production of Tristan, and continued with the first London performance of their spring production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Tristan, conducted by Reginald Goodall and sung in Andrew Porter’s new translation, should have been a major event (not least since the company had to show that it could do the piece better than the Welsh National Opera) but was in every way other than musically, a disaster. Orfeo, also marvellous musically, was visually — I fumble nervously for the right word — unusual. It has certainly divided the critics: the Financial Times described it as ‘an evening of mind-boggling fatuity’; the Observer enthused over the production’s ‘sheer virtuosity’ and ‘dramatic intelligence’.

I incline towards the former assessment. The producer, David Freeman, has chosen to ignore the historical ramifications of a masque-like entertainment devised for the court of Mantua in 1607 and instead set the action in a contemporary peasant community in the Mediterranean. Fair enough: the Orpheus myth is bigger than both Mantua and Monteverdi, and the latter possibly realised this. What is made less than clear in the production, though, is whether the action is happening in and to the community, or whether the villagers are putting on a show. The performance opens with the cast on stage busily improvising itself into peasant characters. Then black-clad members of the orchestra march on to play Monteverdi’s fanfare. How do the peasants react? Ignore this un-peasant-like intrusion? Look mystified? No one had worked this out, and the evening never quite recovered from this strong initial whiff of the bogus. Nevertheless, the first two acts, performed with spirit and discipline, worked well on Mr Freeman’s terms, though I could have done without the Messenger being messily spat at for bearing bad tidings — Monteverdi’s music does not immediately suggest expectoration.

Thereafter, things took a nasty turn. The Shades gibbering ceaselessly on the banks of the Styx and the denizens of Hades ‘improvising’ activities I shall not describe for fear of giving Mr Budden the vapours were pure first-year-drama-school from the 1960s, contemporary to nothing, hideously distracting, and too silly for any words. Worse, the whole style of the production demanded an intimate, eye-to-eye vocal delivery that frequently failed to project into this large auditorium. This was especially true of Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s potentially ideal Orpheus; Jennifer Smith, Della Jones and Laurence Dale were amongst those who, consciously or no, fought back and put their performances across. The production might have worked better in a small space and in tandem with a free version of the original, like Stephen Oliver’s of Pen’s Euridice; cheek by jowl with John Eliot Gardiner’s super-authentic and impeccably played realisation, it looked even more bogus than it was.

Whatever one thought of Orfeo,its execution was faultless, and it had been meticulously prepared, tirelessly rehearsed. In marked contrast, parts of Tristan looked as if they hadn’t been rehearsed at all, and the whole show seemed to have been flung on to the stage without anyone giving it a moment’s thought. The sets were startlingly ugly, impractical (no room for anyone to move), unflatteringly lit, and looked ten years old on the second night. How were they, and the ghastly costumes, ever passed? Parts of the production apparently provoked mirth on the first night; so did what replaced them on the second — Melot’s death was pure village hall. Visually this was an absolute disgrace; the only point of interest is how it was allowed to happen in a major opera house.

It says a great deal for cast and conductor that they managed to salvage something from the wreckage. Goodall expanded his magisterial reading into the large house, the architectural control faultless, the purely musical qualities as ever unique; for all the spaciousness, I missed some of the animal passion of the Cardiff performances. Linda Esther Gray’s Isolde was, as in Wales, notable for beauty of phrasing and for splendour of tone now spread evenly throughout the range — her voice is in prime state. She had, to put it mildly, more trouble with the English words than with the German, but what was heard of the text from her colleagues suggested that Mr Porter’s translation was a complete success. Gwynne Howell’s Mark remains unbeatable, Felicity Palmer’s Brangaene was projected with total clarity, and Norman Bailey was a good Kurwenal. Alberto Remedios’s first Tristan has been a little grudgingly received. It goes without saying that he sang with great musicianship; even more remarkable under the circumstances was the way he virtually single-handedly pulled the third act up by its boot-strings and reminded us that we were supposed to be participating in a dramatic performance, not watching a concert in costume. Well done that man.

Rodney Milnes | 28 AUGUST 1981


As most British readers of this magazine will know the ENO’S eagerly awaited Tristan and Isolde was musically a triumph and visually a neardisaster, or perhaps a disgrace would be a better word. In that some of its horrors had been removed by the second performance, so one has reliably been informed, and various other modifications have been made and obviously will be made before the end of the first series of performances, it seems pointless to detail what went on before our eyes. What must be said, however, is that neither Glen Byam Shaw nor John Blatchley, so successful in their joint direction of the ENO’S Ring and Mastersingers, seemed to have anything to say as far as characterization is concerned — perhaps they were so appalled by Hayden Griffin’s sets and Carol Lawrence’s costumes that might just have got by at a school concert, that they just gave up trying. The question that also must be asked is how did such a visually inept production ever get beyond rehearsal stage? Surely the managing director, the music director, the director of productions, and the director of drama and text, could have put their collective feet down and said ‘No’. I recollect that at one of the Edinburgh Festivals during Lord Harewood’s directorship there, a Don Giovanni production which Giulini, who had already conducted it at the Holland Festival, found so upsetting, was scrapped. New costumes were designed and the opera was played without scenery on virtually a bare stage with sky effects projected on to the cyclorama. That surely might have been a solution on this occasion, especially as most of the action was played very close to the footlights, thus bringing audience and singers much nearer to one another than is usual in Tristan.

Reginald Goodall, at least on the first night, did not live up to his reputation for slow tempos, and the excitement he engendered in the pit and on the stage at the end of Act 1, at the extinguishing of the torch and the meeting of the lovers in Act 2, and the arrival of the ship in Act 3, must have sent my blood pressure up. As well as excitement there was tension and a wonderful overall conception of the score. Unlike Daniel Barenboim, whose Tristan at Bayreuth two days later seemed to have no shape and was made up of small musical sentences, Goodall’s Wagner was made up of long, balanced paragraphs, each leading to the next one. Fortunately there is now aural proof of this in the recently released Welsh National Opera recording of Tristan reviewed on page 996-8.

Gwynne Howell (King Mark) Linda Esther Gray’s Isolde was sung with thrilling tone, youthful exuberance, and, when required, melting beauty as in the `Liebestod’; her cursing of the ship was terrifyingly realistic. Only her English diction could be faulted; not one word in ten was clearly articulated. This also applied to Alberto Remedios, at least in the first two acts, though many of his words in Tristan’s great long scene of delirium in Act 3 came across; there he was helped by the lighter scoring and by the conductor’s wonderful balancing of sound. Remedios’s voice has taken on a more heroic timbre, though the beautiful lyric quality is still there. Already he is an impressive Tristan; he has it in him to become an outstanding one.

Goodall originally wanted a lightish soprano for his Brangaene. Felicity Palmer is not exactly that, being more a dramatic soprano; but I liked her very positive approach to Brangaene, and only missed the beauty of tone that some sumptuous mezzos have brought to the Tower Warning. Her diction was, on the whole, good, and on the strength of her performance I would like to hear her sing Fricka and Waltraute. Norman Bailey was fighting an indisposition and was not his usual bluff self as Kurwenal in Act 1, but was something like his old self in Act 3, moving in his solicitude for the sick Tristan. Geoffrey Chard was a very positive and menacing Melot, Adrian Martin a lyric young Sailor and Stuart Kale, looking more like a shaggy sheepdog than shepherd, sang his few measures in the last act effectively.

Towering above everyone physically and vocally was Gwynne Howell, whose golden, burnished tones and quiet dignity made King Mark’s long speech in Act 2 pass all too quickly. His English diction was exemplary, every syllable was audible, and so one was able to admire Andrew Porter’s admirable translation which is, incidentally, available in one of the excellent new series of ENO Opera Guides, published by Calder at £2. HAROLD ROSENTHAL


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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 333 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC Radio 3)
Sung in English (translation by Andrew Porter)
A production by Glen Byam Shaw and John Blatchley