Tristan and Isolde, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2016

This new production by incoming artistic director Daniel Kramer is his first full-length opera for the ENO — he previously directed a fine Bluebeard’s Castle as part of a double bill in 2009 — so it was intriguing to see the result.

Entrance of King Mark, all images ENO/ Catherine Ashton

Entrance of King Mark, Brangäne and Isolde left, Kurwenal and Tristan right

There was a plethora of ideas, too many for my liking, and greater simplicity in costumes and make-up would have helped enormously. Yet the main stage designs by Anish Kapoor are boldly effective: the massive triple partition in Act I, the “grotto” in Act II, and the plain wall of Act III with a huge tear revealing the grotto behind. I liked the fact that the lovers were able to touch one another even after being discovered in Act II, and the clasping hands at the end of the Liebestod as they join together on their journey from day to night, whether in reality or in Isolde’s imagination matters not. Less clear were the reasons for the multiple costume designs, high wigs, ruffs, clown outfits and more, reminding me of Alice in Wonderland, and the mincing attitudes of Tristan’s servant Kurwenal, whose voice immediately belied his representation in this production as an effeminate valet.

Tristan and bizarrely portrayed Kurwenal in Act 3

Tristan and bizarrely portrayed Kurwenal in Act 3, all images ENO/ Ashmore

Vocally however, this was terrific, and under the baton of ENO’s former music director Ed Gardner the orchestra produced wonderful moments. The ethereal quality of the Prelude provided a marvellous start, and the use of the high gallery for the sailor’s song and off-stage brass added excellent musical effects. The ENO is fortunate indeed to have leading Heldentenor Stuart Skelton as Tristan brilliantly bringing out the angst, passion and yearning for death in a role he sang earlier this year at Baden-Baden, and one he seems destined to repeat in major opera houses around the world. And making her ENO debut, American soprano Heidi Melton sang Isolde with seemingly effortless control in the middle range, and a beautiful purity of tone at moments of reflection. Skelton is no stranger to the London Coliseum having sung such roles as Parsifal and Peter Grimes here, and he and Melton gave us voices well up to the job of filling this vast auditorium.



With Matthew Rose as a nobly sonorous King Mark, American bass-baritone Craig Colclough as a resolute and strongly sung Kurwenal, despite the comical exigencies of his role in this production, and Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill a beautifully toned Brangäne, this cast did the ENO proud. Diction was generally excellent, with Peter Van Hulle particularly notable as the Shepherd in Act III.

Excellent orchestral direction by Ed Gardner, who effected a cut in the love duet that helped keep things at high tension throughout Act II, but I can see no good dramatic reason for the eclectic costumes and the bizarre portrayal of Kurwenal. The main designs, lighting and projections served a useful purpose, but methinks the director may have been trying too hard.

Performances continue on various dates until July 9 — for details click here.

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