Photo: Catherine Ashmore for ENO
In the round of summer opera festivals (I am so lucky as to have two world-class local ones, Garsington and Longborough) the first to come up as Garsington’s Rossini, L’italiana in Algeri. It was most notable for its striking sets, by George Souglides. But not entirely in a good way. The gilded columns and Moorish arches stage right were beautiful, if a little difficult to see and appreciate from our seats on the opposite side of the lovely transparent opera house. However, on our side there was a white deck-ish thing, a bit saddle-shaped. I read somewhere the suggestion that this object, which proved slippy and tricky for the singers to negotiate, was meant to evoke sand dunes; but what it evoked for me was the shape of a plane in one of the non-Euclidean geometries I learned about as a philosophy graduate student.
The director, Will Tuckett, gave a hostage to fortune when he said that his Mustafà (the Bey of Algiers who tires of his wife, Elvira, and wants to replace her with the Italian girl of the title) had to be a bit menacing, and not just a comic figure. There was nothing remotely frightening about this Bey – Quirijn de Lang was in good voice, but far too lovable and good-looking to distress as much as a piece of furniture. The Italian girl herself, Ezgi Kutlu, has a big voice, and looked a bit sexy in her 1950s frock, but the vocal honours belong mostly to the men, especially Luciano Botelho as Lindoro and Riccardo Novaro, as Taddeo. David Parry’s orchestra was absolutely first-rate, making for a very enjoyable evening – though the very best part of it was the amazingly generous “traditional” picnic by Feast, which fed and watered the two of us (for £39 each) and provided sufficient and delicious leftovers to supply lunch for three the next day. But in my summer of opera, this Rossini was only a prelude to Wagner.
When Wagner, the younger man by 21 years, visited Rossini in Paris in 1860, the elder composer told him that he’d given up composing because the quality of singers and audiences had declined. “There you have the reasons,” he said, “and there were also others, why I judged that I had something better to do, which was to keep silent.”
Wagner was not discouraged by these remarks, despite the fact that he was in Paris for an unsuccessful production of Tannhäuser; and his optimism was such that he went on to build his own opera house and start his own festival at Bayreuth. “Monsieur Wagner,” wrote Rossini to Emile Naumann, “a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d’heures.” My scholarship is insufficient to pronounce as to whether the bad quarter-hours of Wagner’s music came from Tannhäuser, but the dates seem to fit. That strikes me as a little odd, for at Longborough on this, my many-th rehearing of the opera, Anthony Negus’s supreme conducting made me aware of how much music the 1845 opera contains, which Wagner was to recycle in the Ring and Parsifal. Negus’s Tannhäuser proceeds in paragraphs, almost pages, huge sweeping chains and swags of sound, pausing only once in a while for the orchestra and singers to breathe collectively. I found it easy to concentrate on hearing the music – also thanks to director Alan Privett’s minimal staging and very much because of designer Kjell Torriset’s tactfully sparse sets, with Ben Ormerod’s lighting doing some of the heavy-lifting. Another factor in making this possibly the most enjoyable Tannhäuser I’ve seen were the male ensembles – the Minnesingers were truly splendid, well directed and in beautiful voice, with Hrólfur Saemundsson’s Wolfram von Eschenbach outstanding. Bravo, John Treleaven, whose Tannhäuser stayed the course, and for Alison Kettlewell’s Venus on a swing and for Erika Mädi Jones, who made me believe in Elisabeth’s suffering. For almost the first time, I didn’t feel that this opera sets up a phony tension between a feeble Christianity and a ridiculous paganism in neither of which any of the parties believe or care about. Somehow this seemed to be about genuine issues of guilt, renunciation and redemption by art.
For me Longborough’s Tannhäuser was followed by the English National Opera’s Tristan und Isolde in less than a week. This was a big one for the ENO, as their recent kerfuffles have called attention only to the ineptitude of their management and board, as they did damage to their permanent chorus, so demoralised their music director, Mark Wigglesworth, that he actually quit, and made deals to fill their vast Coliseum with the musicals they hope will pay the bills.
The new artistic director, Daniel Kramer, directed this hopefully face-saving production, with the shout-it-from-the-rooftops-collaboration of the genuinely great sculptor, Sir Anish Kapoor, designing the sets, and the former music director, Edward Gardner (another careless loss by the ENO) conducting.
The sets are pretty terrific – I think. Can’t say for certain about the Act I tripartite affair (which might just have looked like the prow of a ship) because from the press seat I’d been assigned I could see only one third of the stage during this act. I see from the production photographs that it was in fact a pyramid divided into three segments, and that, from my restricted-view seat, I failed to see a good deal of action taking place in the hidden two segments. (Which is slightly galling, as I actually paid for my second ticket!) Act II appeared to be half an enormous sphere, and it turned out to be 3-D, as the lovers cavorted and crawled in, out and through it. The unexplained sphere next to Tristan in Act III makes me think that perhaps Sir Anish’s Act II set is not the mouth of a volcano, but representative of the moon. In which case, the moon’s peaks and valleys are made, not of cheese, but of mashed potato (maybe it’s aligot, both cheese and potato). Before the revelation that it was three-dimensional, I thought I was looking at a plate of mash, and I spotted the bendy outline of a fork at about 9 o’clock. The Act III splodge looked to me as though it was of a shape similar to a human heart (but the doctor who was my companion said this was quite wrong). Perhaps it was meant to be the outline if a continent – South America? Africa? Could it have been Kareol as it might appear on a map? In any case it, too, had crevices and ledges for lovers, and bled – brilliantly, I thought, with Tristan’s blood, thanks to lighting designer Paul Anderson and video designer Frieder Weiss.
Ed Gardner’s Wagner conducting, though not quite in the Negus league yet, was still thrilling, with vivid contrasts of both tempo and dynamics, which evoked palpable yearning that slowed your heartbeat, and excitement that speeded it up. Stuart Skelton only debuted in the Heldentenor role in March in Baden Baden, but has had the advantage of some concert performances with the Berlin Philharmonic. There he presumably sang Tristan in German. Here it was sung in Andre Porter’s translation. I never thought I’d say this, but I enjoyed it the more for being sung in English. Skelton made it through to the end, by which time his voice was a little less gorgeous and generous, but overall a first-class performance. Matthew Rose’s perfectly sung King Marke was itself a reason to see this production.
So what’s not to like?
Above all, the genuinely meaningless, ridiculous, eye-hurting costumes and (presumably) make-up by Christina Cunningham. God knows what Kurwenal (Craig Colclough, in very fine voice) is doing dressed as a sort of Pierrot-gone wrong; I don’t even have a theory to explain it. Or Brangäne as his blowsy Harlequin (Karen Cargill, whose voice also deserved better). Admittedly the now tattered costumes in Act II led a Beckettian air to the goings-on in Kareol and seemed to be making some point. But I don’t know anyone who actually got it.
Daniel Kramer could do better, as well. Tristan and Isolde (Heidi Molton, whose fuller figure is done no favours by her costumes, but who almost managed Mild und Leise, only sounding a bit rough by the time she finally got to höchste Lust!) too often disobey the First Rule of Opera, which is that the singer is always singing to someone, and that is very rarely to himself or to the audience. It is this Rule that creates chemistry between characters, which was not much in evidence in this staging.
But on the whole, it was a good week for Wagner.