Few people these days expect literal cloaks, swords, ships and castles from Tristan und Isolde, although there is some semblance of those things to be found in David Fielding’s new production for Grange Park Opera, despite its aggressive modernity.
Nobody could say there’s no ship or sea in Fielding’s staging, a first for Wagner at the country opera house, as he sets the first act on a spick and span cross channel ferry steaming towards Cornwall with a watery, if static, horizon.
Richard Berkeley-Steele’s “hero without equal” looks like the ship’s purser, the man you’d go to if you’d mislaid your passport or wanted to change some Euros. But no, he’s clearly the captain because he has stripes on his cuffs and presides over the vessel’s computerized control room.
Berkeley-Steele was an astonishing Siegfried for ENO and he certainly has the knack of appearing youthful. His Tristan looks a handsome young man but his costumes (in Act Two he’s a waiter in white jacket and striped trousers) have a constricting effect. Vocally he’s on good form, struggling a little in the huge outpouring of the final act, but valiant and steadfast.
Alwyn Mellor’s Isolde is the vocal triumph of the night, freer and with much greater light and shade than for her rather frenetic Brünnhilde at Longborough last year. It’s a performance that can only grow and Mellor’s first Isolde promises great and greater things.
Fielding combines directing and design duties and visually things get stronger act by act. The love scene is set in an elegant palace bedroom of white and silver, which in a natty trick opens out into a scene of bucolic greenery, and the final act’s tatty room by the sea provides the evening’s most pleasing vista.
After a slightly muted opening prelude, sounding thin on strings and with some ugly first night wobbles, the musical build is slow but sure. Once the potion has been administered, Stephen Barlow drives the English Chamber Orchestra on to a rousing Act 1 finale and then greater and greater strengths. Act 2 rages with passion and there’s much fine playing thereafter.
Chemistry between the leads is in short supply, not helped by Isolde having to put on clothes for the love scene, while Tristan stays buttoned-up, only removing his starched jacket (and then not his shoes) when he slips into bed with the lady.
Cut-out skull, goblet and knife slide into view during the post-coital haze and further extraneousness is provided later with moodily silent figures (young Tristan and his ghostly mum and dad) wandering through the Act 3 prelude and beyond. One can see the rationale for it all but the ideas don’t quite gel.
In an interesting characterisation, Sara Fulgoni’s Brangäne is a strangely galumphing creature (sorry to say, Mrs Overall comes frequently to mind), while Clive Bayley’s dotty King (King?) Marke is a scruffy old bird-watcher, who only overcomes the obstacles through sheer vocal weight. Stephen Gadd’s reliable kilted Kurwenal fares better in all respects.
Ultimately the production fails to create a convincing world but musically there’s a good deal to admire and enjoy in this first Wagnerian adventure for the Hampshire venue.