★★★★☆ Stuart Skelton earns top laurels as Wagner’s tortured hero.

London Coliseum
June 15, 2016

This was the first production since the appointment of new Artistic Director of ENO Daniel Kramer. So much is riding on his future contribution to help save the company that he must have felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. For the most part his directorial concepts worked well, and according to the opera grapevine he appeared to have the trust of his singers. He was well supported by an excellent conductor in Edward Gardner and impressive set designs by the well-known sculptor Anish Kapoor.

Kramer seems to understand what is happening in the score and holds together a reasonably consistent vision with moments of real insight. I particularly like the way he seems to understand the central dilemma in Isolde’s mind, ably helping to demonstrate the layers of her inner conflict. At other times he seems to lose a little, introducing elements that appear to be mere gimmickry. Tristan and Isolde being strapped to hospital beds by King Marke’s men during Act 2 is a case in point. Also having the lovers clamber over rocks and attempting rapturous poses does nothing to dignify either lead singer. A good director will accommodate the physicality of his principals, making a more credible stab at reality rather than risking embarrassment.

 Kramer must also share responsibility for some odd choices made by costume designer Christine Cunningham, many of them unflattering to the two principals, especially Heidi Melton as Isolde. If Cunningham was permitted to design in a vacuum without ever meeting the cast, then Kramer should have exercised some directorial authority and negotiated some alternatives.

Karen Cargill, Heidi Melton, ENO Chorus, Stephen Rooke, Matthew Rose , Craig Colclough and Stuart Skelton

In pre-performance press interviews Skelton said he was much happier with this ENO production than the one he starred in for the Baden-Baden festival earlier in the year (which will later transfer to the Met in New York). He felt that the ENO production had “preserved the mythic, monumental nature of the opera”. In general I agree with him and credit must go to Anish Kapoor’s sets, which really helped set the tone. Despite a few problems with sight lines they work extremely well and give Paul Anderson a brilliant surface for an evocative lighting plot.

ENO has presented Stuart Skelton with many of his career milestones. There is a degree of trust leading to a highly productive partnership between him and the company. His outstanding performances in Peter Grimes and Otello have certainly helped in his career path and also enhanced the reputation of ENO itself. The magic has worked again with his performance of Tristan. Skelton is an intelligent and focused singer. He handles emotional and musical nuance with ease, is always watchable, and most of all a singer who knows what his composer wants.

In an interview I had with Skelton in September 2014 he told me that Tristan was a role he wanted to tackle in a few years’ time when the voice was ready. Sadly he felt it wasn’t in 2015 when he was scheduled to sing a concert version in Sydney conducted by David Robertson and he had to cancel. Has it been worth the wait? Undoubtedly yes. Skelton will be much in demand to sing this role all over the world. Whatever a director makes him do or a designer makes him wear, his musical integrity and acting ability shine through and engage audiences in a unique way.

Karen Cargill, Heidi Melton, Stuart Skelton and Matthew Rose

If the role of Tristan is a mountain to climb for a tenor, then so is Isolde for a soprano. Heidi Melton certainly has the voice and some Wagner experience. She is a committed singer with real musical ability capable of engaging with her audience and turning out a fine performance. Many first night critics were impressed with her singing in Act 1 but felt by Act 3 she had visibly tired and the performance became second rate. However, a little into the run she had obviously been working on stamina and technique. The final scenes held together, but still not displaying the focus she achieved at the start. Melton has the potential to make a very credible Isolde and to become a first class Wagnerian if she does not tackle roles too early in her career.

Both lead singers have had to relearn their roles in English, having previously sung them in German. This takes considerable effort and Skelton in particular has genuine clarity making you believe he was singing in an original tongue rather than a translation. Melton is less clear with her enunciation sometimes taking refuge in elongated vowel sounds and sliding over consonants.

Craig Colclough as Kurwenal and Karen Cargill as Brangäne are outstanding singers and actors. I did not always appreciate the absurd way they were costumed or the Beckett-like clown routine that Colclough has to portray in Act 3, but they are totally committed and sing with great professionalism. Mathew Rose also turns in a highly polished performance as King Marke and manages to fully engage throughout his long and difficult Act 2 monologue using his expressive bass baritone.

Heidi Melton and Stuart Skelton

It was wonderful to see Edward Gardner back on the conductor’s podium. The ENO musicians make up a truly world class opera orchestra. Both the playing and conducting are superb. I don’t want to get into a long debate about the future of the company and the questionable management decisions being made, but listening to playing of this quality illustrates just how much is at stake regarding ENO’s survival. Overall this was a memorable production and like many others I hope this opens a new beginning in the rather sorry recent management history of ENO as a company.

This performance of Tristan and Isolde at English National Opera was dedicated to the memory of Alberto Remedios who, as readers may know, died in Australia on June 11. Remedios was a fine Wagnerian tenor who had sung the role of Tristan twice in different ENO productions with Reginald Goodall conducting. Stuart Skelton proved to be an outstanding successor to this remarkable singer and it was fitting that Remedios should be remembered in this way.

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