Tristan and Isolde review – a fascinating, vexing riot of ideas

Coliseum, London
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.

• At the Coliseum, London until 9 July

Contributor

Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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