Tristan and Isolde – ENO (2 June)

Tristan and Isolde [sung in Andrew Porter’s English translation]

Tristan – David Rendall
Isolde – Susan Bullock
Brangäne – Jane Irwin
Kurwenal – Jonathan Summers
King Mark – Matthew Best
Melot – Leigh Melrose
A Young Sailor – Rhys Meirion
A Shepherd – Alasdair Elliott
A Helmsman – Paul Napier-Burrows

English National Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Dietfried Bernet

David Alden – Director
Wolfgang Göbbel – Lighting (revived Michael Gunning & Paul Taylor)
Ian MacNeil – Designer

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 2 June, 2003
Venue: Coliseum, London

Having been deprived of stagings of Tristan und Isolde for a while, Wagnerians currently have two options to ponder – a new production at Glyndebourne and ENO’s revival, which opened within days of each other.

In ENO’s revival of David Alden’s 1996 production, the challenges presented by Wagner have, on the whole, been well met.

The plaudits are primarily due on this occasion to conductor Dietfried Bernet (a senior figure hardly known to London audiences), who has the measure of Wagner’s magnificent score and who has encouraged stirring and committed playing from the orchestra, which gives no evidence of tiredness throughout the course of the long evening.

Bernet’s view is, overall, a spacious one, with plenty of time given to the articulation of details sometimes submerged in less considered or thoughtful readings, which, nevertheless, do not draw undue attention to themselves but are integrated as part of the drama and character motivation. He is also appropriately tempestuous in Act One, with the music surging and swelling in accompaniment to Isolde’s scorn and fury.

It’s just as well that Bernet enables Wagner’s graphic sea music to be clearly heard and recognisable as such, since, in David Alden’s staging, there is precious little indication that the first act is set on board a ship – more of which anon.

Bernet’s conducting of the Prelude that prefigures the drama is broad indeed. This ever-puzzling yet mesmerising music vibrates in this production with the seething tensions and passions that grip the protagonists. Rhys Meirion provides the first voice heard, that of the lyrical sailor, which I would prefer more distantly placed.

Susan Bullock reveals herself immediately as a compelling and convincing Isolde. Her initial outbursts have a fine steely ring to them, with plenty of venom directed against Tristan and the situation she finds herself in. But her sound never becomes ugly and is never covered by the orchestra, even when the latter is at its most vehement. When it comes to demonstrating warmth and expression, she is not to be found wanting in either quality. Indeed, Susan Bullock is a thoroughly creditable heroine. Any drawback in characterisation is due to the requirements placed upon her by the director. Writhing and rolling about on the floor does very little positive for Susan Bullock’s – or Wagner’s – Isolde.

Her companion Brangäne is clearly seen by Alden as an ambiguous figure, possibly veering on the malicious side. Jane Irwin does all that is required of her. Her bespectacled and rather shabby appearance does not do Brangäne any favours, either. Irwin demonstrates a powerful, bright voice, which in an ideal world would be tempered with a little more profundity of tone. Momentary hints of flatness during her Act Two warnings are small blots on a portrayal that is extremely convincing in its own terms.

David Rendall’s Tristan is a surprise – and a revelation. Hitherto, his fach has primarily been in Italian and French opera, although smatterings of Mozart and Russian opera are also to his credit. In terms of Wagner, his essaying of Erik in The Flying Dutchman is hardly preparation for the trials and tribulations of Tristan, which is second only to Siegfried in terms of taxing demands.

Rendall’s tone has darkened of late, and there is appropriate weight and depth in his delivery. If he does not have the bright, ringing timbre of a Heldentenor, then this is more than made up for in the sincerity of his utterance and demeanour. Here is a troubled man, torn between duty towards his king and uncle, and the uncontrollable feelings he has for Isolde. His sincerity in his Act Two exchanges with Isolde is poignant, and his demented mien in the third act is almost unbearable to see and hear. The Coliseum is the right size of house for Rendall’s Tristan, and the intensity of his performance is quite remarkable.

Matthew Best does not really have sufficient gravitas in voice or bearing as the wronged if ultimately sympathetic king. His monologue is delivered with care for the enunciation of the text but ultimately lacks that sonorous resonance which is a pre-requisite for Wagner basses.

Jonathan Summers, sporting a kilt, is a characterful Kurwenal, although his voice is not now as strong or firmly focused as once it was. The composer requests a tenor for the small but crucial part of Melot, so Leigh Melrose’s baritone already put him at a disadvantage, but his blustery delivery does not make the right kind of impact.

Alasdair Elliott as a pipe-less shepherd (the distant cor anglais most exquisitely played by Geoffrey Browne) sings mellifluously but is obliged to spend much of the time staring at the audience before crawling on the floor and ultimately cradling Tristan’s sword.

David Alden’s direction has been widely admired so perhaps mine is a minority view when I admit to being quite baffled, in places, by what he has put on stage on this occasion.

It seems to me to be quite wrong for Tristan and Isolde never to touch or face each other during their Act Two encounter, or for Isolde not to acknowledge Tristan’s presence when she arrives in Act Three, let alone to wander off into the distance at the opera’s conclusion when she is supposed to die.

The opening scene is set by Wagner “at sea on the deck of Tristan’s ship”, which here seems to be a ruined chapel or courtyard of some kind. There is much playing with Tristan’s sword: at one point in the love duet, Tristan seems to be fighting off some invisible foe instead of communing with his beloved. And why must the characters be so scruffy in dress? Isolde is a princess, after all, and Tristan a knight. (Curiously, Alden’s Munich production of Tannhäuser had the characters appearing in less than flattering garb and, also, the action is set around a ruined building.) The love-potion, which affects and afflicts Tristan and Isolde, is apparently available to anyone who desires it. Melot has a sample before attacking Tristan and even King Mark takes a swig on his arrival in Act Three.

It’s not an irritating production, yet neither is it especially illuminating of Wagner’s characters and scenario.

In the end, this all matters far less given the musical qualities, which evince careful preparation and rehearsal. There isvirtually flawless co-ordination between stage and pit with orchestra and singers at one in realising Wagner’s stringent demands.

Dietfried Bernet has that increasingly rare ability – Reginald Goodall had it too – of building tension to an almost unbearable level. The conclusion of Act One is quite shattering, with full-toned chorus and properly balanced off-stage brass.

Wagnerian conducting of this kind is rarely heard, and for this reason, as well as the performances by the principals, I urge you to catch one of the remaining performances.

  • Remaining performances on 5 June (at 5 o’clock) and 8 June (at 3 o’clock). Box Office: 020 7632 8300
  • English National Opera

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