Tristan and Isolde


“Brave and bold... theatrically enthralling”

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For English National Opera and its incoming artistic director Daniel Kramer, whose production this is, much has depended on this new Tristan and Isolde, with designs by renowned sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor. It’s a brave and bold show, sometimes idiosyncratic, but at its best (the final act) full of resonant imagery and theatrically enthralling. In short, just what ENO needs.

Christina Cunningham’s costumes for Act 1 could almost be for Versailles: The Opera. Isolde’s bustle visualises the subjection of the Irish princess, while the courtly attire of Brangäne and Kurwenal — later reduced to a shell — reflect the text’s emphasis on “custom”.

Sir Anish’s sets consist of triangular cones meeting at the apex (Act 1), a huge sphere lit so as to suggest foliage or bare rock — uncomfortably for the flowery bank on to which the lovers sink (Act 2) and a lump of black quartz that bleeds like a wound or a womb (Act 3).

The notion of suicide hovers over Wagner’s work and Kramer brings it to the fore, furnishing Isolde with a knife. King Marke and his courtiers interrupt not so much a sexual act as a suicide pact.

Heidi Melton’s attractively voiced Isolde had insufficient tonal contrast; her American vowels may be a matter of taste, but her Liebestod was inadequate. Stuart Skelton’s tremendous Tristan had all the tonal nuance Melton lacked. Craig Colclough’s Kurwenal was intermittently beautiful but always eloquent, as were Matthew Rose’s Marke and Karen Cargill’s Brangäne. 

The orchestral playing and Edward Gardner’s conducting were both magnificent. Might Gardner be lured back to ENO? With him and Kramer at the helm the company’s stock could rise dramatically.

Author: Barry Millington

“A fascinating, vexing riot of ideas”

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Cheers greeted English National Opera’s new Tristan and Isolde. Beyond a couple of strangulated whoops, no one booed. It’s become such a habit, it’s worth noting. Much was riding on this high-profile production. Nor was the reaction entirely straightforward. The loudest roars were for the Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton, now a world-class Tristan, and for Edward Gardner, ENO’s former music director, conducting the work for the first time. The staging, epic and detailed, fascinating and infuriating, a profusion of ideas from the brilliant and philosophical to the crazily contentious, was directed by Daniel Kramer – long planned but his first since being appointed ENO’s new artistic director – and designed by the sculptor Anish Kapoor, who crisply noted last week: “Wagner was anti-Semitic and I’m Jewish... in the end, one somehow has to put that aside.”

It’s easy to be hijacked by the production – of which more in a moment – but praise, first, for singers and orchestra, who carry the minute-by-minute burden of Wagner’s five-hour masterpiece. Skelton brings a skein of bright-dark shades to a role that makes almost impossible demands of stamina and emotional intensity; he met them, impressively.

The American dramatic soprano Heidi Melton, making her ENO debut, had steely power but sounded first-night weary by her great farewell Liebestod. The Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill was magnificent and tender as Brangäne; a performer with a special grace and energy. Craig Colclough captured the noble fidelity of Kurwenal. Above all Matthew Rose glowed with wisdom and generosity as King Marke – a formidable, heart-warming performance.

The text, in Andrew Porter’s translation, was easy to hear. The ENO orchestra, always good Wagnerians, were still tentative at times in the music’s long arc but with untold riches to explore. A chorus of knights and sailors were properly buoyant and lusty in voice. Kapoor, with a strong design team, has created three spectacular sets, the first a suggestion of sails and deck, the second a giant half-geode, its cavity an encrustation of crystals and mineral. In the last act of this journey towards light, just part of that crystallised interior is exposed, like a jagged, calcified heart. The play of light on these massive edifices – not always perfectly on cue, but that will come – gives these sets a febrile, ever-changing vitality. Act 1 is a mix of costume imagery – Las Meninas meets The Mikado – with emphasis given to the lovers’ backstory: complicated if you choose to know it, which not all productions do. The aspect that will cause chief irritation is the decision to cast Brangäne and Kurwenal as classic servant fops in the mode of a Cruikshank cartoon: frock coats and high, Brillo-pad-with-glamour wigs, all pout and moue. Kurwenal’s jaunty opening music and the Gilbertian folly of the plot may justify this. The trouble is you are left with this potent image even as the pair change and deepen as the work progresses – which to some extent they did here, with Colclough touching as Tristan’s loyal clown. All these points are secondary to the grandeur of Wagner’s score, the scale of his visionary ambition. The sexy ecstasy of Act 2 was handled with restraint, more transcendental embrace than long, verismo snog. In part this production gets there even if in part it remains provisional. It certainly provokes thought, and I’m all for that.

Author: Fiona Maddocks

“Anish Kapoor’s bold designs and lighting triumph”

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Much buzz surrounded the opening night Tristan and Isolde directed by the ENO’s incoming artistic director, the irrepressibly optimistic 39-year-old American Daniel Kramer, taking over at a time of great turbulence. It’s not his first production for the company, following Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy in 2009 and a Josef Fritzl-imbued Duke Bluebeard’s Castle which was topical, but a very particular take on Bartòk’s vision. Broadly speaking, his treatment of Wagner’s hymn to the apotheosis of love is a success.  

Anish Kapoor’s designs brilliantly negotiate abstraction and specificity. Four vast triangles segment the stage into three in the first act to suggest the sails of the ship on which Tristan is bringing a reluctant Isolde to wed King Marke, and emphasise the conflicted separation of the protagonists until the fateful love philtre is drunk – although one does wonder about the sight lines for some of the audience. Act Two’s ecstatic night of illicit passion is set in a huge, round geode on a bare stage, into whose rocky interior the lovers step, lit by starbursts as they move around. At once the lovers’ exclusive world, making ‘one little room an everywhere’, it also evokes the moon, echoing the opera’s embedded themes of night versus day, interior and exterior. The lovers’ realisation of the impossibility of their love in the mundane world leads them to a Schopenhauerian renunciation of self, enacted surprisingly in this version by a would-be joint suicide at the moment of their discovery. 

Stuart Skelton’s superbly mellifluous heroic tenor is ample reason by itself to see the show; Heidi Melton, sometimes harsh in the upper register, is by turns an imperious, vengeful and melting Isolde, successfully riding the Wagnerian swells. Matthew Rose’s lovely bass makes a deeply sympathetic King Marke, well-served, as they all are, in the late Andrew Porter’s excellent translation. 

Welcomed back for this by an appreciative audience, ENO’s previous music director Edward Gardner went all-out for the gut-shredding yearning of the prelude, generally maintaining focus while revelling in somewhat slow tempi. But Christina Cunningham’s costumes occasionally present a problem: why samurai armour? Why the grand guignol costumes – Eraserhead meets Versailles with add-on Jacobean ruffs for poor Karen Cargill (a superb mezzo) as Isolde’s servant Brangäne and for Craig Colclough (also singing valiantly) as Kurwenal, Tristan’s trusted friend? Kapoor’s bold designs and lighting triumph in the final Liebestod, love in death. As the dying Tristan desperately awaits Isolde’s arrival, a cleft in the wall reveals the world of the geode, the boundless realm of endless night and holy forgetting, the portal of their transfiguration.

Author: Cara Chanteau

Financial Times

“Grand and enveloping”

Awards and nominations

  • Olivier Awards 2017
    Outstanding Achievement in Opera


A spectacular production of Tristan and Isolde – designed by Anish Kapoor – opens at the London Coliseum to acclaim

Tristan, Knight of Cornwall, is escorting Isolde, Princess of Ireland, to Cornwall where she is being forced to marry King Marke. On the voyage, Isolde learns that Tristan murdered her previous fiancé and she vows vengeance, intending to poison him. But her servant Brangäne tricks both the Princess and the Knight into drinking a love potion.

Isolde must still marry King Marke but has taken Tristan as her lover. Brangäne tries to warn her she is in danger, but her passion for Tristan is uncontrollable, and the lovers meet while the King is away hunting.

When they realise they can be together only by night, the couple decide happiness lies in the eternal darkness of death. Their plan is disrupted however by the return of the King’s hunting party and Tristan throws himself on to the sword of the King’s servant Melot, causing a serious injury.

Recovering at his father’s estate on the Cornish coast, Tristan is delirious with pain, dreaming only of a reunion with Isolde. Suddenly a servant sights her ship, but the lovers’ reunion ends in death and heartbreak.