Wednesday, 29 June 2016

ENO: Tristan and Isolde ★★★★

Many opera lovers know that there is much luscious music to discover with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The climactic love-death song that is Liebestod (otherwise known as Isolde’s Verklärung), the glorious intensity of the score alongside the romantic verse written by the German composer himself are a few reasons, out of many, as to why it is considered a landmark opera which has influenced music history. Not forgetting the tragic story where two lovers down a love potion which leaves them stuck in a world they cannot exist together in.

The English National Opera (ENO) last staged Wagner’s visceral opera twenty years ago, yet its newly appointed artistic director Daniel Kramer has introduced a new production with grand designs by award-winning contemporary artist Anish Kapoor – the man who designed the Orbital Tower at the heart of the Olympic Park and controversial sculptures for the French palace of Versailles. 


The inspiration behind Wagner’s four-hour opera includes his admiration for Arthur Schopenhauer and his metaphysical ideas of the annihilation of the self, as well as his keen interest in medieval literature and another love; a love that is revealed through various letters he wrote to the wife of his benefactor, Mathilde Wesendonch.


Although Wagner was already married, living in exile in Switzerland for his part in the Dresden Uprising of 1894, he felt compelled to write the ‘most full-blooded musical conception’. One could describe Wagner’s reasons for composing his monumental opera as a way of hammering out a message to Mathilde or releasing his own frustrations on such a sensitive situation. Regardless of his motivations, one thing that cannot be negated is the biopic nature the opera had on Wagner, where ‘words, stage setting, visible action, and music come together in closest harmony towards the central dramatic purpose.’


The ENO’s previous musical director Edward Gardner returns to his former residence, and in this case for Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which he performs with warmth and vitality from start to finish. The ENO Orchestra also presents Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) exquisitely - the prelude and lovely ‘Tristan chord’, which lingers throughout the opera are a wonder to hear. 

Following the nihilistic notions of Schopenhauer; the yearning for the dark, escape from the realities of the day in exchange for an existence beyond the physical, light plays a huge part of the production's staging and this is executed by Paul Anderson’s light designs, which assists Kapoor’s large scale artworks. However, some audience members may feel a bit left behind with what they see before them.

A golden stage divided by three, a huge ball sliced in half with our lovers hiding in its inner cave, and a ripped out hole, which releases blood, are the artist’s ‘vision for a complete artistic experience’, yet these abstract works can appear ambiguous unless one is familiar with Kapoor’s work. Much praise goes to the visual lighting effects that take place on stage, but a visually stimulating stage isn’t necessary for a grand opera that is already a musical masterpiece in its own right.


The production’s costumes, designed by Christina Cunningham, are filled with characteristics from a Star Wars movie, which also seem weak in relevance to the opera or Kapoor's complex staging despite their craft and sophistication.


Nonetheless, justice can be found from outstanding performances including Stuart Skelton as Tristan. His robust and silvery voice makes his Tristan a triumphant performance which is no surprise for a tenor who received positive reviews for his role as Peter Grimes at the ENO. Karen Cargill, as Brangäne, and Craig Colclough, as Kurwenal, sing effectively and energetically while Matthew Rose deeply impresses and charms the audiences as elderly King Marke. 


Making her debut at the ENO is Heidi Melton. Many members of the audience sob as she closes the opera with her version of Liebstod. Singing the role of Isolde is a tough challenge, bestowing a devoted and headstrong princess but Melton doesn't falter. She is solid in the beginning scenes, but performs best at its conclusion, rendering the auditorium speechless. It is a touching sight seeing Isolde sing romantic words, similar to a sonnet, as she holds Tristan's face - an image that will stay with me for a long time. 



Tristan and Isolde is playing at the London Coliseum until July 9. Click here to book tickets.