Tristan und Isolde

Edward Gardner
English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
July 2016
Coliseum London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanStuart Skelton
IsoldeHeidi Melton
BrangäneKaren Cargill
KurwenalCraig Colclough
König MarkeMatthew Rose
MelotStephen Rooke
Ein junger SeemannDavid Webb
Ein HirtPeter Van Hulle
SteuermannPaul Sheehan
The Guardian

A fascinating, vexing riot of ideas

ENO’s Daniel Kramer presented an ambitious Tristan and Isolde, with spectacular sets by Anish Kapoor

Cheers greeted English National Opera’s new Tristan and Isolde. Beyond a couple of strangulated whoops, no one booed. It’s become such a habit, it’s worth noting. Much was riding on this high-profile production. Nor was the reaction entirely straightforward. The loudest roars were for the Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton, now a world-class Tristan, and for Edward Gardner, ENO’s former music director, conducting the work for the first time.

The staging, epic and detailed, fascinating and infuriating, a profusion of ideas from the brilliant and philosophical to the crazily contentious, was directed by Daniel Kramer – long planned but his first since being appointed ENO’s new artistic director – and designed by the sculptor Anish Kapoor, who crisply noted last week: “Wagner was antisemitic and I’m Jewish… in the end, one somehow has to put that aside.”

It’s easy to be hijacked by the production – of which more in a moment – but praise, first, for singers and orchestra, who carry the minute-by-minute burden of Wagner’s five-hour masterpiece. Skelton brings a skein of bright-dark shades to a role that makes almost impossible demands of stamina and emotional intensity; he met them, impressively.

The American dramatic soprano Heidi Melton, making her ENO debut, had steely power but sounded first-night weary by her great farewell Liebestod. The Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill was magnificent and tender as Brangäne; a performer with a special grace and energy. Craig Colclough captured the noble fidelity of Kurwenal. Above all Matthew Rose glowed with wisdom and generosity as King Marke – a formidable, heartwarming performance.

The text, in Andrew Porter’s translation, was easy to hear. The ENO orchestra, always good Wagnerians, were still tentative at times in the music’s long arc but with untold riches to explore. A chorus of knights and sailors were properly buoyant and lusty in voice.

Kapoor, with a strong design team, has created three spectacular sets, the first a suggestion of sails and deck, the second a giant half-geode, its cavity an encrustation of crystals and mineral. In the last act of this journey towards light, just part of that crystallised interior is exposed, like a jagged, calcified heart. The play of light on these massive edifices – not always perfectly on cue, but that will come – gives these sets a febrile, ever-changing vitality. Act 1 is a mix of costume imagery – Las Meninas meets The Mikado – with emphasis given to the lovers’ backstory: complicated if you choose to know it, which not all productions do.

The aspect that will cause chief irritation is the decision to cast Brangäne and Kurwenal as classic servant fops in the mode of a Cruikshank cartoon: frock coats and high, Brillo-pad-with-glamour wigs, all pout and moue. Kurwenal’s jaunty opening music and the Gilbertian folly of the plot may justify this. The trouble is you are left with this potent image even as the pair change and deepen as the work progresses – which to some extent they did here, with Colclough touching as Tristan’s loyal clown. All these points are secondary to the grandeur of Wagner’s score, the scale of his visionary ambition. The sexy ecstasy of Act 2 was handled with restraint, more transcendental embrace than long, verismo snog. In part this production gets there even if in part it remains provisional. It certainly provokes thought, and I’m all for that.

Fiona Maddocks | Sunday 12 June 2016

The Spectator

A lethally perverse production

I can well believe, however, that in later performances the musical aspect will become much stronger

It is at the Coliseum that I have seen the most wonderful Tristan and Isoldes of my life, both of them under Reginald Goodall, in 1981 and, even more inspired, in 1985. Neither was particularly well produced, but nothing stood in the way of the musical realisation, as complete as I can ever imagine its being. After last year’s quite glorious Mastersingers, I had the highest hopes of Edward Gardner’s conducting of this new production, but they were dashed — in the case of the music, not drastically; but the idiocy of the costumes and the production is so gross that no performance could survive it.

The settings are fashionably by Anish Kapoor, but though they aren’t repulsive they do nothing to help our understanding of the drama. Act I has a tripartite set, with the central section used only at the end when King Marke’s courtiers, then the King himself, briefly appear. Act II seems to take place in a volcano, of which we are given a bird’s-eye view. Act III has a gaping wound in a white wall, over which Tristan’s blood spreads — that is rather impressive.

The costume designer Christina Cunningham, no doubt working in league with the producer, Daniel Kramer, manages to sabotage what impressiveness the sets have. The two central figures are at first innocuously dressed, but Brangäne and Kurwenal are kitted out as performers in a Restoration farce, and mince around, Kurwenal spraying Tristan with scent before he confronts Isolde. I’ve seen many perverted productions of Tristan, but this is the first one in which camp figured. Meanwhile Isolde has been put into a vast hooped dress — all this in case one has ignored the words, which make the nature of her enraging arranged marriage perfectly clear.

Kramer’s ideas are not only distracting and irrelevant, they are infantile and silly. In Act II the lovers go in for self-harming during the duet, as they clamber to no purpose over the innards of the volcano, and when they are interrupted at their climax it is not by huntsmen but by a large medical team, who wheel on beds and force the lovers on to them before strapping them down and sedating them. Into this nonsense strides the immensely imposing King Marke of Matthew Rose, who sings his long monologue here, and his shorter contributions in the last act, with a nobility and richness of tone that makes it obligatory to see this production, as nothing else does. He is clothed traditionally, and sings his lament straight out to the audience, a representative, presumably, of a faded era.

Isolde is taken by Heidi Melton, the possessor of a lovely voice, but not vocally convincing as Isolde, because, while she narrated and cursed superbly in Act I, she couldn’t do much more than hold her own in Act II, lacking the sumptuousness needed for the invocation to Frau Minne; and her so-miscalled Liebestod was touch and go. In one of his most outrageous interventions Kramer had Tristan resurrected while Isolde sang, ignoring the crucial point that the whole pathos, as opposed to the ecstasy, of the last 20 minutes of the drama is that the lovers die apart, and deluded. It must be torture to be almost but not quite able to sing this role of all soprano roles, but I’m afraid that Melton is in that position.

By contrast, Stuart Skelton seems to have what it takes to get through his role — by the way, the heinous 12-minute cut in the Act II duet, which I had hoped had disappeared for ever, was imposed here; in what other opera is there a comparable act of barbarism, still? Skelton looks good, acts reasonably well, especially hard in this production, and stays the course with voice to spare. All he needs to do now is to deepen his grasp of the words: there is no inwardness in his singing. Last year at Longborough, Peter Wedd, admittedly in a theatre one fifth of the size, was far more moving. Skelton’s invitation to Isolde to accompany him to ‘the wonder-realm of night’ didn’t move me at all, nor his rantings in Act III, the profoundest part of the work.

More obviously than in any other opera, the most important man is in the pit. After a shattering Prelude, stupendously played, Gardner seemed to be feeling his way, often eliciting excessively quiet playing, but more worryingly letting the tension slip from the music. That happened in each act, but acutely in Act III, where Wagner’s masterly transitions threatened to become stagnations.

But there were many things that were beautiful and exciting, and I can well believe that in later performances the musical aspect will be much stronger. The appalling production will, as they do, survive in all its lethal perversity.

Michael Tanner | 18 June 2016

The New York Times

‘Tristan und Isolde,’ From an Unsettled English National Opera

Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is the kind of work that opera companies do to prove they can. Hugely demanding of resources, time and self-belief, it makes a statement. And the statement in the new production that opened last Thursday and runs until July 9 at the English National Opera here is that this much loved but beleaguered company, struggling to survive near-terminal misfortunes, can still show a brave face to the world.

A thing of beauty and ambition qualified by clumsy farce, this “Tristan” is directed by the company’s just-announced artistic director, Daniel Kramer (an emergency appointment after the show first went into rehearsal), and conducted by Edward Gardner, its former music director. (His successor lasted six months in the job, which is now vacant.)

Star billing goes to the sculptor Anish Kapoor, who has designed the spectacular sets. It was smart to engage Mr. Kapoor: His fame will draw an audience beyond the usual opera crowd and fill the London Coliseum’s 2,400 seats. (Attendance is one of several problems the English National Opera has to fix.) But more than that, his monumental, magisterial abstraction is a perfect visual correlative to Wagner’s score.

“Tristan” is bulky but not busy theater. There are rarely more than three or four people on the stage. The chorus plays a token role. The context scarcely matters. And the little action that occurs is contained within the final minutes of each act.

For most of its four hours, “Tristan” is expansively contemplative: a meditation on the power of love. And Mr. Kapoor’s elementally grand images have a totemic beauty that invites reflective thought.

Act I played in a golden, pyramidlike frame suggestive of the ceremonial formality with which Tristan is escorting a royal bride to meet her husband. Act II was set in a vast suspended hemisphere, hollowed out to look initially like the moon but then revealed as something closer to a geological specimen large enough for two lovers to clamber inside. And for Act III, the hemisphere was adapted into a sort of human organ — possibly a beating heart, or Tristan’s wound steeped in the purple-red of flowing blood.

So far so good. But then came an aesthetic conflict. Set against Mr. Kapoor’s art-house purity were grotesquely fussy costumes by Christina Cunningham, somewhere between “Star Wars” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Isolde (Heidi Melton) made her Act I entrance in a shapeless wrap that made her look like a malevolent hot-water bottle. Tristan (Stuart Skelton) was a toy-box Jedi. And with slapstick routines foisted on their attendants, Kurwenal and Brangäne, much of this high-serious opera hovered on the edge of farce. It might well have been Godot rather than Isolde we were waiting for in Act III.

Mr. Kramer’s reasons for such unexpected comedy seemed to be that love and life are alternating forms of madness, equally absurd, achieving sanity only in death. Whatever his intentions, they drew memorable performances from an outstanding cast. In supporting roles, Karen Cargill and Craig Colclough brought a manic brilliance to the two attendants that might be called pioneering. Matthew Rose’s King Marke was a paradigm of sorrowful nobility, magnificently sung.

Ms. Melton and Mr. Skelton were credible and captivating as ardent lovers; if there was an awkwardness about their gestures of abandonment as they romped in Mr. Kapoor’s hemisphere, no matter. It was touching, poignant, heartfelt.

Both had brightly agile voices with no glimmer of the rasping tightness that afflicts too many singers in this helden, or heroic repertory. And Mr. Skelton proved to be one of the freshest-sounding Tristans on the world stage — having sung it only once before, with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic this year. He takes it on again to open the 2016-17 season at the Metropolitan Opera, which should be something to look forward to.

The biggest cheers, though, at the London Coliseum went to Mr. Gardner and the orchestra. They were the opening-night heroes — partly for artistic reasons (it was a magnificently measured reading, rich in texture, grand in scope), but also for holding firm while everything around them at the coliseum staggers from one crisis to the next.

Throughout the company’s woes — which can be attributed to financial recklessness, mismanagement, infighting and deep cuts in government funding — the orchestra and chorus have been in the firing line, with threats (partly realized) to pare them down into a smaller and less permanent ensemble.

Disputes about the future of the chorus were what prompted the departure of Mark Wigglesworth, Mr. Gardner’s short-lived successor as musical director. And the company’s management continues to seek ways to save money or make money, including trimming the number of new productions. Perhaps they have been thinking about Mr. Kapoor’s artful sets. They would most likely raise a useful sum at Sotheby’s.


Transfigured night: Tristan and Isolde at ENO

There is always a danger when employing famous artists to design theatrical sets that the visuals become the staging and what goes on within them becomes secondary – who, for instance, remembers the stage directors behind the productions famously designed by David Hockney (The Rake’s Progress, Tristan, Die Frau ohne Schatten)? But since Anish Kapoor’s creations for English National Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde are so much more physical than mere painted backcloths, they play a significant role in the drama itself.

For Act I Kapoor has designed a vast multiple sail-like structure, creating rooms fanning out from a central core like the segments of an orange (and it is indeed orange, or gold, in colour). We have Isolde’s quarters on the left, Tristan’s on the right, and the middle one remains dark until the arrival of the third party in this three-way relationship, King Mark, at the very end of the act. Act II is dominated by what looks like a rocky grotto, or a cave in the cliffs of Cornwall, perhaps, where the lovers have their tryst, turning at the moment of their discovery to reveal it is contained in a moon-like sphere. For Act III the grotto is partly screened from view and seen through a big gash that presumably represents Tristan’s wound. It all looks stunning, and is evocatively lit by Paul Anderson.

The production by Daniel Kramer, ENO’s newly appointed artistic director, is at its best when it engages with these impressive surroundings, taking us into the realm of the mind, away from the physical world – the Act II duet, with the lovers crawling around the pathways of the grotto, is a particularly evocative presentation and a magical fusion of sound and image. Elsewhere, his thought-processes are less clear. Flashes of insight – the lovers’ self-harming as indication of their death-wish, and the cumbersome dressing up for the arrival in Cornwall to meet the king revealing the social conventions that are about to be challenged – are counteracted by more inexplicable decisions. It’s reasonable to mark the lovers’ interruption with the cold light of day, but do they need to be strapped to modern hospital beds and tended to by massed medics while Mark gives them his poignant dressing-down?

And while on the subject of incongruities, what was with the Samurai allusions in Christina Cunningham’s costuming of Tristan, Mark and the ship’s crew in Act I, something that was never picked up on again? Otherwise, there’s a rather camped-up 18th-century presentation of the lead characters in this opening act, with both Brangäne and Kurwenal be-wigged as escapees from Ariadne auf Naxos, or equivalent, faffing around with their superiors’ clothing. The desolation of Act III is well presented, with the lovers white-haired, their servants dishevelled and almost bald, but the effect is spoiled with some unnecessary and intrusive comic business with Kurwenal. Tristan can work on stage as abstract music drama – its “action”, as Wagner termed it, is all in the music and words – or as narrative realism. Rarely does it take easily to combining both approaches, as Kramer’s somewhat uneven presentation shows.

Fortunately, the musical qualities of much of this performance provided compensation. First among them has to be the Tristan of Stuart Skelton, who on this basis must surely be regarded as one of the finest Wagnerian tenors before us today. His tonal clarity, crisp diction, firmness and attention to the detail of Wagner’s vocal writing are rarely to be found in a single singer, and while his voice may have become a little more Grimes-like (one of Skelton’s other key roles) in his mad reveries of Act III, he is meant to be mortally wounded by this stage.

Heidi Melton’s Isolde began well, and her singing was refined and suitably projected in the more conversational passages, but there was a tendency for things to loosen too much when singing at full pelt, especially in the heated exchanges of the Act II love duet, and her Liebestod lacked bloom. Karen Cargill’s Brangäne was a beacon of clarity (Andrew Porter’s English translation is used), but Craig Colclough’s Kurwenal, often mellifluously sung, was hampered by his over-the-top characterisation, which at times gave one the feeling that he’d stepped in from an opera buffa by mistake. Matthew Rose’s expressive interjections at the ends of Acts II and III were sensitively and compassionately sung, taking advantage of conductor Edward Gardner’s slow tempi here.

Gardner had begun the work with a relatively swift account of the famous Prelude and while one wasn’t especially aware of anything dragging, final timings suggest it was a slower than average interpretation overall, yet one that was both searching and searing in its ebb and flow and often blazing in its high emotional temperature. Wagner has always brought out the best in the ENO Orchestra, going back to the days of the legendary Reginald Goodall (though I doubt if any players remain from his day). This performance lived up to the best of that tradition in the ensemble’s colour, translucence and sheer richness of sound.

Matthew Rye | 10 Juni 2016

Opera News

ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA presented its first Tristan and Isolde in twenty years in a new production by the company’s incoming artistic director, Daniel Kramer (seen June 15). Sets were by the prominent British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor, Christina Cunningham was responsible for the costumes, Paul Anderson for the lighting and Frieder Weiss for the video projections. Edward Gardner, ENO’s former music director, made a welcome return to the pit to conduct.

Kramer’s appointment as artistic director was announced in April of this year, long after he was selected by his predecessor, John Berry, to direct Tristan. Kramer was already known to the company as a stage director: Kramer’s first success for ENO was his vitally theatrical version of Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, staged at the Young Vic in 2008, which was stamped with the composer’s seal of approval. The following year, Kramer’s far more controversial production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle made specific visual reference to the infamous Joseph Fritzl case in Austria, a device that was felt by some to be both opportunistic and tasteless. ENO audiences lost sight of him after that, until his reappearance as Berry’s replacement. Since then, Kramer’s upbeat speeches seem to have won him the broad support of the beleaguered company.

The Kramer Tristan was an uncertain achievement. Though Kapoor had designed sets for opera before, notably an Idomeneo for Glyndebourne in 2003, the problem with his contribution, as with those of other great visual artists lured into theater design, is that his semi-abstract structures were essentially installations with an independent existence of their own and had little to offer in purely theatrical terms. While rarely getting seriously in the way—though Stuart Skelton’s Tristan and Heidi Melton’s Isolde had to negotiate gingerly the internals of Kapoor’s cavern-in-the-moonscape of Act II— the sets added little that was positive until a plainer carbuncle-like image appeared attached to the backcloth in Act III; the illusion of what looked like black blood streaming from Tristan’s wound and flooding the background proved powerful.

More problematic than the sets were Cunningham’s costumes. In Act I, Craig Colclough’s Kurwenal and Karen Cargill’s Brangäne were dressed in the ultra-fancy uniforms and preposterous hairstyles of foppish Baroque servants being sent up for purely comic effect. Brangäne spent much of Act I helping Isolde get into a crinoline; Kurwenal put Tristan into the costume of a samurai warrior in which he would subsequently battle King Marke and his Japanese/Cornish knights when they entered at the close of the scene. Kurwenal nevertheless found time gratuitously to assault Brangäne in a grotesquely sexual manner, later lifting the edge of Isolde’s skirt as if about to do something similar to her.

The arrival of Marke and his entourage towards the end of Act II saw Tristan and Isolde forcibly strapped to hospital beds, and then sedated with syringes—though that did not stop Tristan suddenly getting up and hurling himself upon the dagger held out by Stephen Rooke’s Melot. Dramatically, the best part of the evening was Act III, when the depth of the relationship between Tristan and Kurwenal was touchingly suggested in scenes that made them look like a pair of lost derelicts from Waiting for Godot.

The evening’s musical side rose to a much higher level, particularly in terms of Gardner’s fluent conducting, which maintained constant momentum while allowing aural space for the singers’ voices and words to come through. With its shiny string tone, characterful woodwind and dark-hued, focused brass, ENO’s orchestra responded with its finest playing.

Melton offered a presentable Isolde, not quite even throughout but generally solid and clear, and with enough tone left at the end of the evening to deliver a firm Liebestod. Colclough’s most impressive moments came in the third act, when he was bold and forthright in delivery. Cargill sang with warm and lovely mezzo tone all evening, her famous Act II warning filtered in from the wings to utterly magical effect. Matthew Rose brought dignity and expressive power to Marke’s great lament.

The outstanding performance was Stuart Skelton’s Tristan, tireless throughout a long evening. He delivered consistent beauty of tone combined with a conscientious care for words, adding a general air of profound world-weariness that perfectly suited this most permanently bereft of Wagner’s heroes.

George Hall | JULY 2016 — VOL. 81, NO. 1

The Telegraph

‘Anish Kapoor has not been madly inspired’

It says something about modern culture that interest in this production has been focused on the look of the thing – the sets are designed by the sculptor Anish Kapoor. Opera now lives or dies as a visual spectacle, and that is surely an impoverishment.

Kapoor has not been madly inspired. The first act transforms the ship into a golden pyramid, divided into three chambers; the second act takes place in a hollowed out semi-circle containing an elaborately moulded cave in which Tristan and Isolde smooch; the third (and most striking) tableau consists of a scrim, placed far downstage, on to which is projected a vulva-shaped gash that seems through video trickery to be infected with blood flowing from Tristan’s wound.

Daniel Kramer’s staging doesn’t interact strongly with these abstract statements: it feels like something struggling against the massive simplicity of the plot and its philosophical hinterland. The most peculiar aspect is the presentation of the servants Brangäne and Kurwenal as a commedia dell’arte double act, cringing and servile caricatures who end up as syphilitic Beckettian hobos. Although powerfully sung and enthusiastically enacted by Karen Cargill and Craig Colclough, they made no sense in terms of Wagner’s text.

Other minor irritants include self-harming during the love duet, Isolde’s transformation into an albino when she arrives in Kareol and some peculiarly aggressive costuming (Isolde in a vast panniered skirt, Tristan as a samurai) that does nothing to illuminate character or emotional state.

Such quirks suggest to me an ambitious and imaginative director without confidence, trying adolescently hard to make an original statement. Kramer also needs to realise that sturdily built opera singers act much better when weird balletic gestures and manoeuvres aren’t imposed on them – the cavortings during the love duet were merely ludicrous.

So what about the poor old music? As Isolde, Heidi Melton didn’t pace herself cannily; she sang a fiercely brilliant first act, but started pushily shrieking thereafter. Her Liebestod was unlovely. Stuart Skelton’s Tristan was vocally on top throughout – trumpet-toned, firm in articulation – if unmoving in his third-act agony. Matthew Rose’s Mark was impeccably sung, but his monologue remains an awful bore.

The hero of the evening for me was Edward Gardner, conducting a dramatically rich and emotionally sensitive interpretation of the score, superbly played by the orchestra. So it was in the pit rather than on stage that this Tristan had vivid life.

Rupert Christiansen | 10 JUNE 2016

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Technical Specifications
545 kbit/s VBR, 44.1kHz, 865 MByte (flac)
Sung in English (translation by Andrew Porter)
Broadcast (BBC Radio 3)
A production by Daniel Kramer (2016)
Possible dates: 2 or 9 July 2016