Now Earth seen from the sky, now a human heart, now a crystal rock split to reveal its purple cavity, now a map of the heavens, it is one of three sets by Anish Kapoor for a production on which many of ENO’s hopes and much of its future depend. And as a symbol of how brilliant this company can be when it is roundly united, it could hardly be more apt.
Daniel Kramer, the new artistic director at ENO, has spoken impressively about being of service to the music and outgrowing the young director’s desire to make their mark. And in this production, which he was already directing before the appointment, he is true to his word. Yes, there are moments when the audience is distracted – why the Samurai warriors? why the Pompadour hair-dos? – but the visual effects overall are as powerful as Wagner’s score.
The opera opens on the ship that transports the unwilling Irish bride Isolde to her wedding in Cornwall, dutiful courier Tristan at the helm. Kapoor’s vessel is a series of sail-shaped gilded wedges that both point the voyage onward and divide passengers and crew. For a few worrying moments it looked as though ENO was going to fall into the old trap of trying too hard: Out come all the old, overworked signifiers – furious Isolde taking out a knife to self-harm, a lewd assault on her servant and companion Brangane, and yes, later, in Act Two, there are the inevitable hospital gurneys with leather straps. You could almost hear the seen-it-all-before audience sigh.
But once it settles in, this production grows and grows, much helped by Kapoor’s sets, the last of which is a simple heart-shaped stain over Act Two's lunar landscape, that flows blood-red (lighting by Paul Anderson) over the dying Tristan as he staggers to his end.
As Tristan, the magnificent Stuart Skelton, a real and rare heldentenor, sings intelligently and characterfully; he goes on shortly to sing the role at the Met. As Isolde, the American soprano Heidi Melton has an awkward stage presence, and there is metallic top that is at odds with a fuller, warmer lower register, but it’s a big voice in a big house, and that’s one of ENO’s perpetual problems solved.
There is wonderful work too from the mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill as Brangane, baritone Craig Colclough as Tristan’s crewman Kurwenal, and the bass Matthew Rose as Isolde’s intended, King Marke, whose shaming Act Two aria is spellbinding.
ENO’s former musical director Edward Gardner returns to conduct an orchestra on tip-top form – such lovely wind playing – and it was hard to believe that he was conducting this giant opera for the first time. Harder still not to feel wistful that it is only a flying visit.
|What||Tristan and Isolde review, English National Opera|
English National Opera
London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
09 Jun 16 – 29 Jun 16, 5:00 PM – 10:15 PM
|Price||£12 - £125|