THEATRE REVIEW | Tristan and Isolde, English National Opera
★★★★★| Tristan and Isolde
Ever had your genitals unbearably pleasured in an opera house, and felt on the endless brink of a shattering orgasm? That’s the metaphorical rapture provoked by Wagner’s deliriously gorgeous Tristan and Isolde, the most awe-inspiring evocation of delayed gratification ever written.
So, just how long does this particular, Wagnerian masterpiece take to climax? Oh, a mere five and a quarter hours, perhaps – in an averagely paced production – but doesn’t appreciating superhuman rapture also require superhuman, receptive discipline? Put bluntly, that means developing transcendent, buttock-muscle control, as passively sitting for so long – except for deliberate, committed masochists –is pure, exquisite torture.
Still, grand opera certainly sorts out the dilettantes from the diligent, and it’s a defiant, demanding, take-no-prisoners corrective to the infantile immediacy of pop-culture. Shouldn’t we all be pig-sick, by now, of Big Brother, Twitter and non-stop media idiocy violating every possible moment 24/7? Sigmund Freud – still a very shrewd, cultural analyst if viewed with a necessary degree of retrospective scepticism – saw instantly gratifying every desire as profoundly immature.
I won’t disagree. Culturally – gay, straight and undecided – we’ve regressed to squalling toddlers, instantly swiping-left, Grindr-style, on anything requiring even a fractional attention span. But naturally, you get what you give, so every dumb sap addicted to social media inhabits, unsurprisingly, a constant, solipsistic void of existential emptiness.
Is there any known cure? Of course, darlings – simply embrace substantial culture. Why waste an instant, mental w*nk on tabloid trash-icons, when – much more thrillingly – you can step beyond kindergarten consciousness and relish the compound pleasures of deferred, adult anticipation?
It’s a deeply ravishing state of mind superbly portrayed by Oscar Wilde’s stellar comrade-in-adversity, Aubrey Beardsley. Perfectly mirroring the heady, suffocating thrills of his closet transvestism and suppressed, incestuous lust for his sister, Beardsley’s The Wagnerites is brooding, unsettling and utterly overwhelming. Just like Tristan and Isolde itself, of course, conspicuously name-checked in the lower, right-hand edge of Beardsley’s drawing.
But if Beardsley’s brilliantly acknowledging Wagner’s deep, disturbing power, he’s also viciously satirising the corrupt, unaesthetic, socialite scumbags attending opera purely for vapid prestige. Shockingly, it’s often still the case – opera-houses worldwide are swamped with corporate seats crammed with snoring, unappreciative oafs who leave at the first possible moment.
That – surprisingly – is hardly the case here, and ENO’s first production of Tristan and Isolde in twenty years is packed to the thrillingly expectant rafters. Why shouldn’t it be? Do love, desire and death – the three, rock-solid fascinations of human nature – ever become passé? Yes, from Michael Jackson’s autopsy reports to the appallingly improbable marriage of Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch, we’re more riveted by grand excess than hillbillies – quite ecstatically – eating fresh roadkill.
And grand excess, of course, always remains cutting-edge – just look at Lady Gaga, the patron saint of calculated, designer-team extremity. Mercifully, Tristan and Isolde’s collaborative brilliance is far less cynically on-trend, and is, quite genuinely, astonishing. It’s not surprising; internationally acclaimed artist Anish Kapoor’s set designs fuse Wagner’s timeless raptures to the startling, audacious modernity of 21st Century London.
Thrillingly, Kapoor makes no concessions whatsoever to cosy, theatrical banality, so his work’s more shockingly joyful than an electrified dildo. Act one, fearlessly, splits the immense, Coliseum stage in tripartite sections with the aggressive beauty of high, sloping metal walls that tightly compartmentalize Wagner’s drama. It’s a sublime, pressure-cooker staging that unbelievably, ramps up Wagner’s protracted, sexual tension still further, and provokes mass, erotic exhaustion by just the first interval.
Phew – who needs iPhone porn? Frankly, the most ferociously sexual function we have is the imagination, which is where every form of conceivable arousal begins, and here, it works overtime! But – in a world inescapably acquainted with the anatomical intimacies of every Kardashian and Caitlyn Jenner – it’s easy to forget Wagner’s somewhat off the cultural radar. So, cue a handy Instagram, flash-memory synopsis for queens unacquainted with ancient, Arthurian legends.
Irish princess Isolde is being escorted by gallant knight Tristan to forcibly marry Cornish King Mark. She’s previously healed a shipwrecked Tristan despite his killing Morold, her intended fiancé, in combat, and then fallen irretrievably in love with Tristan.
But, he’s stubbornly determined to fulfil his duty and deliver Isolde to Mark despite his mutual love for her. Distraught, she pressures him to drink poison in a suicide-pact, but her servant, Brangane, exchanges it for an irresistible love-potion. Instantly stripped to pure, raging love more frantically real than any social niceties or pretence, they adore each other to death – and beyond.
Overwhelmed? You should be – in lesser, soap-opera producer’s hands, the story’s pure, prime-time Viagra, enough for decades of brain-dead, Hollyoaks sleaze. But Wagner – more fanatically committed to his art than any suicide-bomber – gave Tristan and Isolde a towering, life-changing intensity that demands, but ravishingly rewards, total intoxication from an audience.
Still, it’s no easy ride for the singers, either, a punishing, five-hour, emotional assault course that stretches even phenomenal talents to the limit. But, we’re in superbly capable hands – soprano Heidi Melton’s Isolde breezily marries ferocious passion to a radiant, diva mystique Celine Dion would kill for. And tenor Stuart Skelton’s shockingly devoted Tristan provides a bedrock, vocal grounding, seamlessly unifying the often chaotic costuming choices – Samurai armour and bouffant wigs? – displayed.
Just as compellingly, there’s bass-baritone Craig Colclough’s sonorously persuasive Kurwenal, Tristan’s staunch servant, and mezzo-soprano’s Karen Cargill’s mellifluous Brangane, Isolde’s lady-in-waiting. It’s all beautifully sustained by conductor Edward Gardner’s subtle grasps of emphasis, but tonight, this is Wagner on crack, with Kapoor’s astounding, never-static set-designs.
Inside a huge, split amethyst hemisphere that also suggests an immense, suspended womb, Wagner’s lovers sing themselves to fatal, devouring ecstasy. By act three, negative lighting makes the sphere a black, hovering void on a white backdrop, streaming startling torrents of moving blood. Stunningly, it’s realising Wagner’s most cherished ideal – the gesamtkunstwerk, a spectacle simultaneously combining art, music and design- which, as a frenzied, mystical hedonist, he’d simply adore.
So let’s pity poor, often cash-strapped Wagner – he barely came close to staging adequate versions of his soaring visions in his lifetime.
Thankfully, a brief patronage from beyond-eccentric King Ludwig of Bavaria did allow one luxury – Wagner indulged his transvestite need to compose wrapped in yards of sheer, saffron silk, but it was too little, too late. Still, why complain? Sure, Wagner’s long gone, but his legacy’s the most shattering, exhausting, but most delirious love music ever made, and – like sexual diversity itself – permanently enhances human happiness. There’s really no better epitaph than that.
Tristan and Isolde plays at the London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane to 9th July.
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