Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Tristan & Isolde review – Wagner’s vision brought to life in Surrey

8 June 2023

Grange Park Opera brews potions of love and death at its opening night.

Tristan & Isolde

Tristan & Isolde (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Here’s a revolutionary thought: Stage Tristan und Isolde with sets very much as Wagner would have seen them, rooting the tale of the doomed lovers in plush Victorian reality so as to make their otherworldliness all the more striking. Add a concept of the pair as a repressed 19th century ‘couple to be’, and you have a staging which must have puzzled the many neophyte members of the audience who probably attended this glamorous First Night of the Season expecting unbridled, illicit passion.

If the central pair resembled a governess about to wed her charges’ uncle, there was no lack of passion of the non-erotic kind in Matthew Rose’s King Marke, Christine Rice’s Brangane and David Stout’s Kurwenal. These were the best voices on the stage. Rose’s portrayal of the king was an object lesson in nobility, every line infused with pathos – he got a huge ovation, and rightly so.

Tristan & Isolde

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Christine Rice was the epitome of warmth and sincerity as Brangane, with her lovely rich tone and empathetic acting. David Stout had clearly been listening carefully to Fischer-Dieskau’s recording of Kurwenal; you can sense this in his intense phrasing and the ‘cello-like tone of his singing. A very fine assumption of the role.

The lovers were less remarkable. Rachel Nicholls’ Isolde began as a combination of toddler and shrew, maturing into a buttoned-up lady. It seemed odd that she would engage with male characters whilst dressed in corset and bloomers, but perhaps this was intended to contrast with her disrobing in the final moments. Her voice has the steely quality of Rita Hunter: there’s plenty of stamina there and she looks fabulous, but her tone sounds unvaried and harsh at times. After this First Night, she will almost certainly regain her usual command of those top notes.

“Rose’s portrayal of the king was an object lesson in nobility…”

Gwyn Hughes Jones is more impressive in moments of lyrical tenderness than the grand outbursts – ‘O sink hernieder’ was beautifully done but overall there are too many aspirates for this to be a memorable Tristan. He certainly has the required stamina for the brutal final act.

Sam Utley’s Shepherd displayed a lovely lyrical tone, and Thomas Isherwood made his mark as the Steersman. Mark le Brocq as Melot added yet another to his portfolio of distinctive performances of small but telling roles.

Tristan & Isolde

Christine Rice & Rachel Nicholls (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Stephen Barlow directed The Gascoigne Orchestra in a small-scale, finely moulded reading of the score, at times opting for a chamber style when a little more bombast would have been expected. The Prelude swept us inexorably into the drama, and the players rose to the occasion at the close.

Charles Edwards’ designs made striking use of backdrops which would have been familiar to Wagner, finely suggesting both the ship’s interior and the castles. Gabrielle Dalton’s austere costume designs fitted well with the concept, and Tim Mitchells’ lighting brilliantly evoked both the crepuscular and sunlit atmospheres of the drama.  

‘Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have / Immortal longings in me…’ Wagner knew his Shakespeare, and the director has absorbed the atmosphere of Cleopatra’s farewell, showing Isolde’s ‘immortal longings’ not as robing for a queenly death but as a shedding of earthly trappings. It makes for a fitting conclusion to an ambitious and largely satisfying evening.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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