History has cast a complex light on Wagner’s music and on Wagner the man. But Tristan & Isolde (Wagner’s enormous vision of erotic love) is an opera that can still resonate today. Nietzsche referred to its “dangerous fascinations”, “spine-tingling and blissful infinity“ and “voluptuousness”. This was Grange Park Opera’s first foray into Wagnerian opera. They are based in an award-winning built opera house tucked away behind the imposing bulk of The Grange, a partially ruined mansion in glorious Hampshire countryside. It is very much a posh frocks and picnics occasion, with formal dress assumed. It is an amusing occasion for people watching, although the etiquette can surprise – as has happened to me at Garsington in the past, I was unceremoniously shoved out of the way by a very well dressed woman in the interval crush! Fortunately the audience settled down sufficiently for the hushed first three notes to be heard. These are key to the whole work, along with chord that follows, the famous “Tristan Chord”. Harmonically, it can be argued that this does not find its resolution until the very last chord of the opera. It is Wagner’s use of such unresolved suspense and tension that makes Tristan & Isolde so musically compelling.

Director David Fielding came up with a fascinating contemporary setting. On a commercial hovercraft, partially converted to military use (housing several coffins shrouded with the Cornish flag), a disturbed passenger was having a tantrum, throwing first a chair, and then herself, to the ground when the captain of the ferry chose to ignore her. Her long-suffering carer eventually resorting to a box of Bach Flower remedies to calm her down – or not. Her luggage included a large knife and the skull of her formally betrothed. This was far from my image of the journey of Isolde from Ireland to Cornwall, and took a while to get used to. The lustful frenzy of the second act took place in a neo-Regency bedroom until a Daliesque moment when the rear walls melted away to reveal an enchanted forest as huge cut-outs of Morald’s skull, the love-potent goblet and the knife slide on stage. This move into dreamland, along with a 15 minute cut, made rather more sense of the second Act than Wagner’s original where the real-time portrayal of the endless debate between the love-struck pair does sometimes make a quickie seem an attractive proposition. Still more-or-less fully clothed (it took them 25 minutes to take their shoes off!) the couple melt back into reality just in time for their endlessly delayed coitus to be interrupted by the arrival of King Marke and his gang of heavies. The last act found Tristan and Kurwenal washed up in an inflatable dinghy in a derelict sanatorium. On-stage apparitions of his youth, his ghostly mother and blood-soaked father accompanied Tristan’s slow descent into death. If you did not know the story, you might not have realised that Tristan had died as soon as Isolde arrived to revive him, as he remained active until the very end. The concluding Liebestod was sung by Isolde in front of the curtain with Tristan kneeling before her before they both walked backstage, through the curtain, past what I assume was their own coffins.

There were a number of textural issues which those that know the work might question, one being at the start when the young sailor (singing from within feet of Isolde rather than from the top of a masthead) sang about his “wild, adorable Irish girl” straight to Isolde when he is supposed to be musing about a lass he has left behind in port. This reduces the effect of her apparent paranoia when she thinks he is referring to her - on this occasion, he very clearly was. A more serious departure came at the end of the second act when Tristan was stabbed by Melot in a surprise attack while Tristan’s back was turned, a departure from Wagner’s instruction that Tristan deliberately drop his guard in a face to face stand off, thereby fulfilling what appears to be his own wish to die in a suicide pact with Isolde – the subject of much of the metaphysical discussion of the second Act. Again this would have passed un-noticed to newcomers to the work.

Some of the characterisations seemed a little over-wrought, with King Marke of Cornwall dressed as a shabby birdwatcher (a reference to the present day titular head of Cornwall?), but Clive Bayley’s rich bass was outstanding. Sara Fulgoni’s portrayal of Brangäne was rather over-the-top, with exaggerated facial and bodily gestures, but her singing was amongst the best of the evening. Other strong performances came from the minor roles, but the real stars must be Richard Berkeley-Steele as Tristan and Alwyn Mellor as Isolde, both immensely powerful performances. Stephen Barlow conducted the English Chamber Orchestra with conviction, producing some moments of intense drama from the relatively small (by Wagnerian standards) forces, notably with some exquisite playing from the woodwind. Whatever its potential shortcomings, this performance kept me enthralled throughout, although that enthrallment was accompanied by the occasional giggle.

Grange Park Opera
Grange Park Opera