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You can't hurry love

05/24/2003 -  and 27, 30 May, 2, 8 June
Richard Wagner: Tristan and Isolde
Rhys Meirion (Sailor), Susan Bullock (Isolde), Jane Irwin (Brangäne), Jonathan Summers (Kurwenal), David Rendall (Tristan), Leigh Melrose (Melot), Matthew Best (King Marke), Alasdair Elliott (Shepherd), Paul Napier-Burrows (Helmsman)

Dietfried Bernet (conductor), David Alden (director)

ENO chorus and orchestra

An obituary in the Guardian of 24 May recorded that its subject and his wife, who had been married for almost fifty years and died within a few weeks of each other, wished it to be known that they were survived by their pet tortoises Tristan and Isolde. A cynic, or someone whose brain hasn't yet clicked into Wagnerian gear, might say that there is something chelonid about both the length of time it takes for anything to happen in Tristan and Isolde and the speed and grace with which it happens. (Tortoises, though, have the air of having achieved Buddhist detachment, which in which Wagner shows an interest only in Parsifal, if at all.) The trouble with Tristan is that it presents as a public spectacle a minute anatomy of the timeless process of consciousness. The process is intimately related to love, or more probably sex, but the plot, although on paper apparently conventional, is merely a skeletal frame for the music-based drama of the protagonists' burgeoning sense of self. And the result, for those who have not already internalised the work, can be a pair of rigid carapaces going through the motions of love in an ungainly way.

Whether Tristan works depends on the performance, even more than for other highly authored nineteenth- and twentieth-century works. The highly praised new production at Glyndebourne, directed by Nicholas Lehnhoff, seems to aim for lyric intensity on a human scale, casting vocally and personally glamorous performers in a comparatively intimate, but abstract, setting. The ENO's production, directed by David Alden and revived here for the first time, inevitably presents singers with the vocal chops to fill the much larger space, and allows the space to dwarf them as figures. The production itself was impressive the first time out, with the characters consciously playing roles in a ruined theatre that gave way to a cavernous bare stage in the last act, when Tristan and then Isolde have abandoned the audience of the living completely. But, in spite of a luminous Isolde in Elizabeth Connell, a sympathetic King Marke in Gwynne Howell and a glamorously cryptic Brangäne in Susan Parry, an inadequate Tristan made the performance pretty much intolerable overall.

This time out, things were generally much better. Above all, Dietfried Bernet, conducting the ENO orchestra for the first time, kept the score under dynamic tension, moving forward with power if not speed. Neither Susan Bullock nor David Rendall are quite mainstream Wagner singers, but both had the strength of voice and dramatic presence to engage interest throughout. The other roles were well-filled, apart perhaps from Matthew Best's King Marke. He wasn't as off-pitch as the British Eurovision entry, and was identifiably singing music, but his haywire intonation and occasional barking grated, particularly when we are now used to glamorous voices in the role. His mean-and-miserable characterization in act two, softened only by a final embrace of Tristan, undermined the tragedy of the situation by implying that Isolde might well have been driven to adultery anyway for some human warmth. But King Marke is really only part of the plot, and what mattered was the splendid, unreflective and organic growth of the lovers' self-made selves in the music.

H.E. Elsom



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