Tristan und Isolde

Mark Elder
English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
14 February 1996
Coliseum London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanGeorge Gray
IsoldeElizabeth Connell
BrangäneSusan Parry
KurwenalJonathan Summers
König MarkeGwynne Howell
MelotChristopher Booth-Jones
Ein junger SeemannJohn Hudson
Ein HirtAlasdair Elliott
SteuermannAnthony Cunningham
The Independent

“WHERE are we?” asks the heroine at the start of Tristan and Isolde, and in David Alden’s new production for ENO it’s a pertinent question. Wherever we are, it isn’t the boat to Cornwall Wagner envisaged: more like a forlornly empty railway station – the Eurostar terminus at Waterloo, perhaps – where Isolde sits with her suitcases waiting for the next delayed departure to nowhere. In fact we’re in a devastated theatre; and it soon becomes clear that Alden’s big idea of Tristan is as a Jungian dreamscape, in which audience and singers step through the great proscenium of life to an interior existence where disowned and buried feelings can be acted out. So far as it goes this is a perfectly reasonable take on an opera that grasped the basics of Freud and Jung before Freud and Jung got there themselves; and for a director of Alden’s iconoclastic reputation it’s almost conventionally done. Apart from a surprise appearance by Kurwenal looking like Biggles in a skirt (the costumes aren’t the strong point of this staging) there is nothing to upset anyone who knows the ropes at Bayreuth. It even looks attractive, thanks to lighting (Wolfgang Gobbel) that defines the open spaces of the dream in striking ways.The problem is that Alden’s idea never allows the protagonists to get their act together, as it were. They hardly touch, which is ironic in a piece that celebrates (like nothing else) erotic love. Alden would argue that anticipation can be more erotic than fulfilment, and it’s true that Wagner’s score is saturated with a musical figure – the famous rising 6th and falling semitone of the opening bars – which is the very image of yearning. But what follows is not all held in check. When Virgil Thomson claimed to hear seven moments of simultaneous orgasm in Act II alone it was wishful thinking, but there are undeniable implications of climactic fulfilment in the writing. What’s more, Alden’s physical separation of the lovers denies the logic of the piece as he himself presents it. If this is all an enactment of unspoken desires, and if the magic potion in Act I is, as Wagner suggests, an emotional laxative that merely releases feelings present in the lovers all along, then they must make contact. Wagner’s prescience embraces many things, but phone sex isn’t one of them.

That said, ENO’s Tristan is a glorious achievement – principally because the music is magnificently done. The orchestra hasn’t sounded so good since the days of Mark Elder; and that’s because it is Mark Elder back in the pit, making a triumphant return to his old domain. The texture, balance, phrasing and articulation are all beautifully taken care of, nurtured into an ideal Wagnerian synthesis of radiance and clarity. And as for singing, it’s one of those occasions when ENO upgrades from a production house to a purveyor of fine voices.

Jonathan Summers’s Kurwenal, Gwynne Howell’s Marke and Susan Parry’s Brangaene are all outstanding. The imported American heldentenor George Gray plays Tristan like Peter Grimes – too much the Byronic bruiser for some tastes but exciting, strong, and rallying with a vengeance in Act III after what threatened to be an Act II vocal shutdown on the opening night. And then there is Elizabeth Connell’s Isolde – another triumphant return, from an artist who vanished from the English opera scene after a promising start at ENO in the late Seventies. Then, she was a mezzo. Now she’s a soprano, and the voice is fresh, pure, true: too oriented to the top, perhaps, with not much muscle down below, but singularly lovely and disarming in its girl-like brightness. Her Isolde is a thing of youthful innocence as well as power. It brought the audience to their feet after the curtain; and I’m sure, in due course, we’ll be cheering her Sieglindes and Brunnhildes.

Michael White | Sunday 18 February 1996


‘Tristan’ —a fine romance

Nobody would really expect a David Alden production of Tristan and Isolde to go in for much hugging and kissing. So it is not exactly a surprise that the central characters in English National Opera’s new staging (February 10) hardly touch, even in their transcendent Act 2 love duet. What is shocking, however, is the way Isolde walks past Tristan’s lifeless body at the end of the opera, heading for oblivion, solitary, isolated. Is this not a denial of the mutual redemption, the indissoluble union, that the work stands for?

Of course it is. But admirers of Alden’s work over the years (myself included) have come to trust him, knowing that it is precisely when he goes against the grain of the text, or the music, that he is apt to be at his most enlightening. The message from this production, enthralling on both musical and dramaturgical levels, is that Tristan and Isolde is more than just a love story. Rather it is, Alden seems to suggest, an existential exploration: passion and yearning are simply the trigger for a comprehensive and painful self-examination of the individual psyche in relation to the world.

Ian MacNeil’s sets create a series of evocative spaces for Alden to work in. That for Act 1 is not a ship, but a dilapidated brick wall with a quasi-medieval portal at one side and an ecclesiastical arch structure at the other. Wolfgang Gobbel’s lighting is stark here, casting portentous shadows. Later the wall rises to reveal a capstan and silhouetted figures against an orange backdrop. For Act 2, the same set is pushed round to one side. As Tristan sings of his ‘vision’ in the love duet, Isolde steps into the arch-framed niche. With the walls around her glowing golden, she resembles a Giotto Madonna, an icon of reverence that connects with Gottfried von Strassburg’s time. As the duet moves to its climax, the wall is lifted up, leaving a space magically transformed by Gobbel’s lighting. Golden doors and a brilliant vermilion backdrop evoke some paradisal sphere. Tristan walks blindfolded into this unknown land: Isolde re-enacts the fateful imbibing of the love potion. The torch extinguished by Isolde re-ignites—we had seen earlier that it had phallic implications as well as acting as a signal—and finally, in an unforgettable theatrical image, paradise slips away before our eyes.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of staging Tristan is finding a way of exteriorizing the emotional drama. Alden’s solution is to work through the protagonists’ retainers. Brangaene becomes an extension of Isolde’s personality, and Kurwenal of Tristan’s, each reflecting, in a vigorous repertoire of gestures (rolling on stage not excluded), the inner turmoil that Tristan and Isolde themselves are too abstracted to evince.

There are some telling details from the lesser characters too. Mark, seeking in vain an explanation of Tristan’s behaviour, movingly embraces him, then pushes him away to a grinding dissonance. During Tristan’s reply, Melot crosses the stage and picks up the dish from which the potion was drunk. His attempt also to fathom what has happened speaks volumes. For most of the third act, the Shepherd sits at the front of the stage: a blind, Tiresias-like figure (but haven’t we seen that before?).

With one exception. the vocal performances were strongly unified, arising, as they did, out of the distinguished Sadler’s Wells/ENO tradition of Wagner-inEnglish. The glint of steel in Elizabeth Connell’s Isolde took me back to the days of Rita Hunter. For one who began her career as a mezzo, she has a fearless command of the upper tessitura, and phrase after phrase, intelligently and musically articulated, struck home. Like Hunter, too, Connell is able to invoke a melting lyrical quality when she chooses—the opening of the Liebestod was just one example. It is almost as if she goes into a different mode in such passages, though: the integration is not yet fully convincing. Susan Parry’s Brangaene is also a brave performance: much highly physical stage action with which the vocal projection is required to keep pace. Parry rises equally to the challenge of the expanded characterization expected of her. Near the beginning of Act 2, for example, where Brangaene warns of Melot’s spite and hate, Parry’s tone palpably hardens, making a revealing contrast with Connell’s emollient pliancy at this point.

Jonathan Summers turns in one of his vintage performances in his first Kurwenal: unsparingly, intimidatingly intense, and trenchantly enunciated. Alden likes to work on the raw material supplied by his singers, and with Summers, the character of Tristan’s outspoken, fiercely loyal retainer seemed to be recast in the image of the actor portraying him.

Gwynne Howell’s King Mark was no less personal: a generous, sympathetic account of a role that too often seems tiresome. Indeed, the Act 2 monologue was more gripping than ever: tensions skilfully calibrated, words admirably audible. All these characters demonstrated the good old-fashioned virtues of clear, front-of-the-mouth diction, communicating with striking immediacy with the audience in its own language. Standing outside that home-grown tradition was the Tristan of George Gray, an American Heldentenor experienced in the role but only in German. Not that his performance was lacking in merit, but both the words and the notes themselves seemed to merge all too readily, forming a stream of sound lacking differentiation and articulation. The voice is both attractive and powerful, however, and it is used with considerable intelligence. The remaining roles were all satisfactorily taken: Christopher Booth-Jones a forthright Melot. John Hudson a fresh-voiced Sailor, and Alasdair Elliott an eloquent Shepherd. If one leaves discussion of the conducting to last, it is in no way to diminish it: indeed, in many ways Mark Elder was the hero of the hour, providing a firm, dependable anchor in the midst of much that perplexed and disturbed. He has already given us a number of stunningly lucid, cogent and passionate performances of Wagner at ENO and elsewhere, and expectations for Tristan were high. Nor were they disappointed. Elder’s Wagner is characteristically tough and sinewy, yet with a capacity for expressive warmth—indeed incandescence. In Act 1 Isolde’s anger blazes furiously, while the fires of passion are stoked vigorously in the Act 2 love duet. Just occasionally I wondered on the first night whether climaxes had peaked quite as expected, but this remains Wagner conducting of a rare order: impulsive, hot-blooded, committed, yet at the same time finely controlled in detail, with an unerring sense of musical architecture. The ENO Orchestra had been well drilled for this landmark event, and it showed.

Barry Millington | April 1996

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 326 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
Sung in English.
A production by David Alden