Richard Bratby

To die for: Grange Park Opera’s Tristan & Isolde reviewed

Plus: melt-in-the-mouth Gilbert & Sullivan, courtesy of John Wilson and the OAE

Flame-haired spitfire: Rachel Nicholls as a magnetic Isolde. Credit: Marc Brenner

There are a lot of corpses on stage at the end of Charles Edwards’s production of Tristan & Isolde for Grange Park Opera. At this stage in the drama, directors tend to fade out the bloodbath, the better to focus on Isolde’s final dissolution into bliss. But as Michael Tanner argues, Tristan, like the Ring, offers no bearable solution to its central problem, however much the music – that great deceiver – might try to persuade us otherwise. You want art to tell you the truth? Wagner knew that you can’t handle the truth. He declared that in Tristan ‘from the first to the last, love shall for once find utter fulfilment’. So it does, and the result is carnage.

So yes, here’s to the corpses, and to many other aspects of this attractive staging. Unsubsidised companies such as Grange Park Opera depend on ticket sales and their audiences expect something that looks decent: no sniggering subversion or jumble-sale costumes here. Edwards has done his own designs. Backdrops from historic Tristan productions dating back to 1865 adorn the drawing room of a Victorian mansion where Isolde (Rachel Nicholls) is dressed in a crinoline by a fussing Brangäne (Christine Rice) while Tristan (Gwyn Hughes Jones), Kurwenal (David Stout) and the boys strut about in 19th-century military uniforms. Ominously, the programme book features an essay on Wagner’s lover Mathilde Wesendonck and I feared we were about to experience that smuggest of middlebrow gimmicks: opera as commentary on its creator.

She’s throwing off sparks like a roman candle. You’d die for this Isolde

Not so: this was a world with its own dream logic. True, some details of Edwards’s concept were baffling – King Marke (Matthew Rose) enters the scene of the lovers’ betrayal well in advance, and makes himself comfortable on the sofa. Others were just irritating: Kurwenal is a dipsomaniac, while the death-devoted lovers display little overt attraction to each other.

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