'Tristan Und Isolde' from an Unsettled English National Opera ; Anish Kapoor's Designs Are the Highlight from a Beleaguered Theater

By White, Michael | International New York Times, June 15, 2016 | Go to article overview

'Tristan Und Isolde' from an Unsettled English National Opera ; Anish Kapoor's Designs Are the Highlight from a Beleaguered Theater


White, Michael, International New York Times


The sculptor Anish Kapoor's sets are a highlight of this new production, directed by Daniel Kramer, recently named to lead the company.

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 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 Gardiner, its last-but-one 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 sets, which are spectacular. It was a smart move to engage Mr. Kapoor: His fame will draw an audience beyond the usual opera crowd and fill the London Coliseum's 2,400 seats. (One of the several problems 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 massive 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 1 played in a golden, pyramidlike frame suggestive of the ceremonial formality with which Tristan is escorting a royal bride to meet her husband. Act 2 was 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 the two lovers to clamber inside. And for Act 3, 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 1 entrance in a shapeless wrap that made her look like a malevolent hot-water bottle. …

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