Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: ENO's Tristan and Isolde

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: ENO's Tristan and Isolde

Article excerpt

It is at the Coliseum that I have seen the most wonderful Tristan and Isolde s 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. …

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