Transcendence In Hampshire: Tristan und Isolde - Grange Park Opera - a not review

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 2 July 2011 | 10:12:00 pm

“The way the will sometimes takes matters into its own hands can be seen in me. It had its ideas for me, and since I should have otherwise stopped cooperating, it brought us together in real life – independent of the fact that outside of time and space we belong to each other anyway – with the result that I started cooperating again” Richard to Cosima Wagner – February 26, 1872 (Cosima Wagner’s Diaries. Trans: Geoffrey Skelton)



Before we start, a brief explanation: this isn’t a “review”. Reviews remind me of marking sheets and scores; star ratings and thumbs up/thumbs down (pre-finals nightmares come rushing back) . Don’t get me wrong, I like reviews, some are highly entertaining and on occasion, when well written, more enjoyable than the thing they review. However, as I know you dear reader are already aware, they are nothing more than the result of individual sense perception and processing and are thus as unreliable as hundreds of graduate and undergraduate psychology experiments have proven such, perceptions, processing and recall to be. And to this we must add the peculiarities and eccentricities of individual “taste” – especially in opera and even more so in the case of Wagner. And finally, good review writing is a talent and one I simply do not have. And so, with that in mind, the following is the result of my own peculiar sense perception processing and “preferences” about Grange Park Opera’s Tristan und Isolde.

There is an ongoing, heated, but friendly, debate taking place over on the Facebook page of wagnernet at the moment. The warring sides have been split into two opposing armies: those that think Wagner opera staging should remain faithful to the text (let us call them the Cosimas) and those that think opera directors should be free to stage Wagner’s operas in any way that represents whatever their own interpretations of said operas might be (let us call them the Katherinas). This of course is a debate that started at least at the end of the 19th century and one that continues to this day. If you are unfamiliar then simply take a quick look at the clips from two very different productions of the Ring Cycle.

And yet, with a few exceptions, Tristan has entered this debate with far less frequency than anything else Wagner created. The reason for this I think is simple, Tristan is perceived within the context of Wagner’s then growing understanding of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. The number of times I have seen it described as a “meditation” on “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung or as “not really an opera at all but a form of “oratorio” is, to be frank, boring . There are also two further factors that may add to the lack of dramatic staging of this opera: one, unlike the Ring for example (for reasons that should be clear to those that understand when the libretto of the ring was written and what Wagner believed at that time) Tristan contains very little in the way of stage direction or description. Second, Tristan is often a smaller or newer opera company’s first Wagner opera. This is because it requires far less resources than Wagner’s other works (Wagner “on the cheap” if you like) and in part, I think - due to its reputation as a philosophical oratorio - it is far easier to justify staging it with little in the way of sets, props or indeed acting skills (after all, the work places enough pressure on the performers from a vocal perspective – who wants to add acting to the mix). But this misconception is just so wrong. Wagner was, among many other things, a dramatist. He wrote and told wonderful, complex emotional dramas. Yes, he might well have been trying to change the very core of his audience’s view of reality – and indeed, society as a whole - but he believed that this could only be done, partially, with the use of drama. Wagner was part and parcel of the German Romantic movement and like most of those of this movement he adored Shakespeare and his use of drama. Add to this the fact that his “stepfather” was a renowned actor, as was his first wife and other members of his family and it is easy to see that he was steeped in the theatre. Indeed many associates, including Cosimo, maintained that had he wanted he could have become a fine actor. Tristan is thus, among many other things a damn good piece of dramatic theatre. Don’t believe me? Look at a summary of Tristan:

Girl’s fiancé is murdered by a handsome knight. Girl swears revenge but then ends up healing said knight and falls in love with him. Knight loves girl but sense of honor compels him to bring girl back to his king as his future wife. It’s a “dark and stormy night” at sea, girl calls for revenge. Knight hints he loves girl but she doesn’t seem “to get it”. She seeks to kill him and herself using poison. He sees through it but takes “poison” anyway. Girl drinks too. But faithful servant has used love potion instead. Intrigue, subterfuge, disloyal friends, loyal friends, sword fights. Knight mortally wounded. Knight is rescued by friend. Last minute dash by girl to save hero, loyal friend of hero waits in fear, misunderstanding leads to more sword fights and death, wise king arrives but too late.

Good lord! This could be the plot of any number of highly successful Hollywood blockbusters. And yet time and time again, I hear the same thing: “Wagner’s operas are boring” “Nothing like Verdi, or Puccini” . “Lots of standing around talking” Where is the passion? Where is the drama? Where is the sheer nail biting tension? And time after time opera companies and stage directors repeat the same formula – with variations - that repeat this misconception. So, where is the drama? Where is the emotion? On Thursday night it was found at Grange Park Opera.

This is not to say everything “worked” of course. There were one or two moments that…but more of that later.

Thursday, 30th June 2011
Production

Act one begins, following Wagner’s direction, on a ship; Isolde is in a cabin, accompanied by her faithful servant Brangäne with the ship soon to arrive at port in Cornwall. However, while remaining faithful to the original description here things deviate - but don’t worry it’s mostly for the better. When the curtain opens we are not presented with the medieval sailing vessel one might expect. Instead, we find ourselves on a very modern hovercraft or military sailing vessel. At the front of the ship (stage rear) are Tristan and Kurwenal – hidden behind sliding doors when directions call for it - standing at the “helm”. This is a very modern setting. Think of the way Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen took Shakespeare’s Richard III and set in an alternative 1930’s England and youre close – or at least getting there. And like that it works well. These are, within the confines of staged opera drama, “real” people. It is just possible to believe that there is some truth in the narration (at least in the Romantic tradition). Tonight will be a night were the action on the stage represents Schopenhauer’s phenomenal reality while the music represents the “true” noumenal reality - a reality of the undifferentiated “one” presenting itself as the the constant uncaring “Wille”. What we see is on stage is the “everyday” , the “real”; what we hear in the music is “true” reality. This is what Wagner’s own writing suggests should be the case – “phenomena on stage, noumenon in the music.

Mellor portrays this most human of Isoldes wonderfully – she is hurt, mortified, angry. Her Wille demands satisfaction: first with Tristan’s presence and devotion and then with his death. She cannot believe that either she did not kill him when she discovered who he was, or that he has now, as she sees it, betrayed her by taking her to King Marke to be married . Right from the beginning Isolde is all Wille, the very epitome of Romanticism. But she is also a very human woman. This is not the metaphysical construct of so many operas, or the unbelievably irrational, angry Isolde of others or even the slightly “icy” Isolde of the legendary Nilsson. No, Mellor makes this Isolde someone who you can sympathise with. This is a very human Isolde indeed.

Before the “love potion”, Steele’s Tristan , with the odd moment of “weakness”, is the embodiment of military control – loyal to his King, royal to his country, patriotic above all else, emotions kept under tight control. He is keeping his true feelings fully in check and yet occasionally, under the surface...

Flagstad, Suthaus, Furtwangler 1951.: Love Duet: Part 1

Kurwenal is less formal, but as Tristan’s friend, is all heroic bravado. There may be the occasional “chink” in Tristan’s “armor” but this is not found in Gadd’s heroic and confident Kurwenal . This is a man firmly of the enlightenment . And again, within the setting, this is fully plausible.

Brangäne is generally portrayed as Isolde’s loyal servant, the soundboard for Isoldes emotions and yet also, to some small degree the voice of “reason”. And while this remains the case, in this production Brangäne s “rationality” is taken further than I think I have seen before. Here Brangäne is transformed from a faithful servant to a super efficient PA. This is emphasized as the curtains open and we find Brangäne, in a black business suit, clipboard in hand, hair tied back, perhaps writing a report or filling in a check-list – all very “business like”. Initially, this Brangäne seems less sympathetic to Isoldes unhappiness than is often the case. If Isolde, and soon Tristan, are embodiments of the Romantic Movements rejection of the Enlightenments pure reason then Brangäne here is that reason personified. From a Freudian perspective (and as we know, Tristan has been analysed from just about every perspective) Brangäne is fully Isolde’s superego and nowhere has this been made more explicit than in this production. Indeed, due to this there were moments early on in the act were I felt Branigans obvious bewilderment and lack of understanding of Isolde’s mortification risked lessening the impact of Isoldes emotions on the audience (it can be very easy to ridicule Isolde’s “rant” in the first act) but thankfully this decreased as soon as mention of the poison came into play and Brangäne grew both more sympathetic, and in equal measure, horrified by what is about to take place and her own role in it.

Flagstad, Suthaus, Furtwangler 1951.: Love Duet: Part 2

Act 2 is Tristan and Isolde’s act and some of the most beautiful love duets ever written, sustained and intermingling, never-ending (if only). Both Tristan and Isolde seek the dark, for it is in the night that not only can they be together in a physical sense (away from prying eyes) but it is here that they can begin to leave the phenomenal and grow closer to their real goal – to become “one”. The day is Wagner’s representation of the phenomenal world and night – the dark – allows him to represent the noumenal, both unknown and unknowable , reality – or at least bring the lovers closer to it. Here there is no Tristan, is no Isolde (as they both keep telling us), indeed there are no “things” only “one” - Schopenhauer’s “reality” – although altered by Wagner. Indeed, it is here, once the lights are extinguished and the sun sets, that the stage no longer needs to represent the phenomenal world, instead the staging can finally attempt represent what we have been hearing in the music all along - and this is what Fielding does.

The scene opens in a large hotel bedroom, well lit and painted white – to my eyes a little sterile, but this may just be me. It is only once Tristan arrives – after Isolde has literally “turned down the lights” that the set parts and the room vanishes . As the lovers begin their journey towards, but never reaching, “the one”, the background changes to a sun eclipsed by the moon. However it is at this stage the setting so far revealed draws perilously close to unraveling. This is entirely due to a moment of “clumsy” and far too literal interpretation of the text . Stage left and stage right enter two large cardboard cut outs of a skull and overturned goblet respectively. These are joined by a giant dagger that is lowered from the center of the stage (at one point I was worried that the “string” would break and it would swing in Mellor’s direction, knocking her unconscious. And was its rising and falling in the manner that it did supposed to be quite so phallic or was this just me?) Thankfully, these frankly “drama school” efforts leave the stage as quickly (although not quick enough) as they arrive. Fielding quickly recovers and back on form ,the lovers find themselves in an abstract forest ,wonderfully represented through the use of Wolfgang Goebbel’s very clever lighting and video projections.

Act two of course ends with Melot’s betrayal and the confrontation with King Marke, and the lovers are quickly brought back to the “light”. Once again the rather sterile bedroom that opened the act is returned and the lovers are once more back in the “real world” - if still intoxicated by their journey towards the “other”. The “fight” here is well staged, and King Marke’s guards forcing Stephen Gadd’s Kurwenal to sit in a corner of the stage helplessly is somehow more poignant than normal. For once Kurwenal actually looks helpless and despondent – although this is greatly helped by the acting talent of Gadd. Andrew Rees’ wonderfully dislikable Melot needs mentioning here also.

And so, to the final act: I had of course seen images of the final act and have to say that I was concerned. Was it “realistic” – or even just warranted - to have Tristan lie dying in a rubber dingy which itself was in a boat house? But I need not have worried, for it actually works. Again, the set design sets the mood of the piece. Once again, lighting is both subtle and fantastic.

Flagstad, Suthaus, Furtwangler 1951.: Love Duet: Part 3

Steele and Gadd make a wonderful final act and work well together. I have to admit that I was not however impressed with Fielding’s staging when the young Tristan, his mother and dead father appeared on stage as he narrates the tragedy of his childhood. However, I note that certain viewers liked this a lot. But as I have said, these things vary on “taste”. It did not “ruin” the act the way I felt the cutout skull had nearly done for me in act two, but I did find a little too “clunky” at times and just a little too “literal”.

Once again, the final fight scene here is well choreographed – better than it was on a video available on YouTube especially.

The Liebestod is performed outside of the set – the curtains now drawn while changes behind the scenes take place – and this works wonderfully.

Cast


This production was blessed with one of the finest casts seen in a long time, in one opera house and at the same time in a performance of Tristan.


Alwyn Mellor and Richard Berkeley-Steele rise to the production and more importantly Wagner’s music wonderfully . Rarely does one find two performers so able to sustain such a level of vocal power, warmth and sheer beauty throughout the genuinely demanding three acts of this monster of an opera. Berkeley-Steele’s tones are lyrical, with no hint of heldentenor bark - heroic when needed, gentle as required. And his acting? It has improved much since I last saw him, and his final act with Kurwenal is beautifully conceived And of Alywyn Mellor? I have heard her before and each time she has been good, but this time? What can one say : her vocal power, beauty and warmth have grown substantially. Her Isolde is not only a revelation due to her fine acting - which manages to make this the most human of Isoldes – but so to is her vocal performance. Rarely does one truly feel one is in the presence of an Isolde of exceptional beauty and quality but tonight was one of those nights. Indeed, based on tonight’s performance I shall attempt to catch her Brünnhilde at Longborough this month if possible – although tickets are selling fast. If you live in the UK I feel certain that you need to catch this woman’s performances now, before she is stolen – like all great talent - by the MET, Bayreuth, La Scala, etc.She is already booked for Seattle Opera Ring Cycle in 2013

In Sara Fulgoni, there is a world class Brangäne in the making. In Tristan she manages to hold her own  easily among an exceptional cast – especially when she must spend so much time on stage with the frankly stunning Mellor. Her tone is wonderfully warm and clear. This is especially so in the lower and middle registers  She is also a good actress and makes a wonderfully, if somewhat eccentric, and in the early stages of act one an occasionally comically mocking  Brangäne. It would be nice to see her perform the first act in a more "traditional" manner in the near future..

Andrew Rees’ holds his own with the rest of the cast, no easy task with an ensemble of this magnitude, and his Melot is well acted and as dislikable and “nasty” as he should be, while wonderfully menacingly sung but with fine tone.

In act two, and from stage left, enters Clive Bayley’s frail, shocked and disbelieving King Marke. The night before I had been listening to Pape’s King Marke and felt this was a mistake. The chance of anyone matching this was most unlikely and surely only disappointment would ensue? .  And the frailty of Bayley's King Marke seemed to insure this, but my word was I wrong. This was a world class performance, clear, smooth, emotional and, goddamit I will use the word, velvety. Why oh why is Clive Bayley not to be found all over youtube? Why can I not buy DVD  recordings of his performances? I can of course  buy CDs,of his performances  on Chandos in their Opera in English series but why is he  not more recorded and in original language performances?  Why he is not performing as King Marke and indeed Gurnemanz in the world’s leading opera houses is beyond me. If you see his name on a cast list anywhere, (In Wagner alone next season you can catch him as Hunding in Opera Norths ongoing Ring Cycle and as Daland in ENO's Flying Dutchman) go to the performance. Even if it is an opera you dislike, simply to hear him.

From the moment that Stephen Gadd ‘s Kurwenal first appears in act one you know you are in for treat. His performance has the best qualities of a star baritone: clarity, power, warmth and expression. His German dictation is excellent but then, perhaps this is to be expected as he has sung Melot at the ROH, Baden Baden and Glyndebourne (Where, for Wagner trivia lovers, he also played Macbeth in 2007 conducted by Glyndebourne’s future Music Director Robin Ticciati). So, he has an excellent familiarity with the text. Although, so heroic was his opening scene I did have concerns as to whether he could then undergo the change that occurs to Kurwenal in act 3, were we find his confidence subdued, full of pathos awaiting the only person who can cure Tristan. But I need not have worried. Not only did he display the vocal and emotional flexibility to carry the change with ease but the acting ability also. The relationship between him and Tristan really shone through in this act- helped greatly by Berkeley-Steele’s Tristan. On the night these two worked wonderfully together.

I can only repeat what other reviewers have said: it took a little time for English Chamber Orchestra to “get going”. I had serious concerns during the prelude which was not what it should be. Wagner of course places a tremendous strain on any orchestra and the ECO, in the confines of Grange Park, are not of the size that you might expect to provide the “lushness” required for Tristan and thus it might be understandable. However, as the first act progressed things changed and by the beginning of the second act they were playing with all of the lushness, power and emotion that you might expect in any performance of Tristan – indeed they presented themselves very well indeed. Wagner is hard work for the world’s leading  symphony orchestras and ECO managed to hold their own well. Stephen Barlow seems to have a good grasp of the music. His tempos seemed very fast to me – up there with Bohm and that is no bad thing. But I might be mistaken, as I lost track of the time – so emotionally involved did one become with the performance, time moved very quickly indeed. In no small part is this due to ECO’s power and Barlow’s expert handling of the score.

So, what can one say overall? I certainly was not expecting the performance that greeted me, given that Grange Park Opera is still so young, the size of the orchestra pit and the opera house as a whole -  and that they do not receive any Arts Council funding. It was without doubt one of those very special nights at the opera very rarely repeated. Time, as someone once said elsewhere, truly turned into space.