For their first foray into the intensely demanding, challenging and iconic world of Wagnerian opera, Grange Park chose Tristan und Isolde. They have tackled it in their fourteenth year of existence - a testament to the astonishing speed and vigour with which Grange Park has grown over the last few years - whereas it took Glyndebourne nearly 70 years to mount the same challenge. And what is fascinating is to see the same opera staged in such completely different ways: Glyndebourne with a single, abstract, all-purpose set, the chorus always invisible, the principals acting out a metaphysical love story at a high level of abstraction, Grange Park putting instead onstage a couple in modern dress, with accoutrements, fixtures and fittings much in evidence, with at times verismo attention to detail, and with real dramatic, human interaction between the cast of characters. For the first act we are on a hovercraft, with three propellors turning above the deck area, seascapes either side of the portholes and a sliding door leading to the bridge at the back of the stage. For Act Two we are in a Regency style bedroom, Isolde in her negligee lying on silk sheets, the stage then opening out into a dappled green enchanted forest (of the lovers' minds?) in which they are hunted down by King Marke's followers. For Act Three we are in a semi-derelict seaside house, autumn leaves blown in over the floor, a Gemini rubber dinghy serving as Tristan's resting place as he awaits Isolde's return. The images are powerful and effective. The details do not always work (we shall come to that) but Grange Park's director and designer, David Fielding, deserves huge credit for the bold way in which he has tackled head-on the human drama that is the very heart of Tristan und Isolde. I found myself with many a head-shaking moment, but also with huge admiration for the commitment and integrity of the overall approach. This production tells the narrative, clearly and effectively. It gets from its principals some deeply-felt, intense and rather wonderful performances. And by the time we get to the Liebestod, I found myself stirred by the music drama in a way that only happens once in a while - the final moments of Strauss's Capriccio, also at Grange Park last year, had the same inspiring quality. So hats off to Grange Park for this Tristan - whether or not it can be said to mark their coming of age as an opera company, it is a terrific achievement.
Now to the music and to the performances. I had my doubts as the first phrases of the Prelude unfolded. The strings sounded thin and undernourished, there was no sheen to the playing, little fluffs in the woodwind (those extraordinary, ambivalent chords that take us nowhere and everywhere at the same time). The Sailor sounded rough and ready, I began to wonder if choppy waters lay ahead. But then Isolde and Brangaene began their dialogue, and I relaxed. To start with Brangaene, I do not think I have ever heard Sara Fulgoni act and sing anything better. Expressive in face and voice, she produced a gorgeously rich mezzo that rode effortlessly over the orchestra, especially in the decisive lower register. As for Alwyn Mellor as Isolde, the tone was full and generous, her sound focused, her sense of attack and forward momentum almost faultless. If I had one criticism of Mellor as the evening progressed, it is that some her her long-breathed melodic lines tended to become chopped up into smaller component parts: there was relatively little legato in her phrasing and as a result the sound sometimes became wearing. But as she sang, so she performed - this was a wild, spirited Irish princess onstage, a character brimming with energy from her first notes to her last. I found her totally convincing, full-blooded, exciting and a born Wagnerian singer.
Opposite her was Richard Berkeley-Steele singing Tristan. In his hovercraft first mate's uniform, open-necked shirt and with a boyish haircut, he looked at first disconcertingly like David Cameron! But I liked his open tenor tone and sense of phrasing from the moment he first addressed Isolde, and as the evening wore on, he went from strength to strength, pacing himself highly intelligently and giving one of the finest Act Three Tristan narrations that I have heard in recent years: beautifully articulated, passionately delivered and conveying a real sense of pathos in a dark, burnished tenor that rose entirely unproblematically to the fiendish high outbursts that defeat many a Tristan! What is more, he and Mellor sang to, and with each other. These were not cardboard cutout figures, placed in boxes, forced to sing at each other fifty metres apart. They touched, they kissed, they interacted - and their voices blended beautifully. Only once were they spreadeagled either side of the stage, against the side walls, and it didn't really work.
Luxury casting in some of the smaller roles (is there really such a thing in Wagner?) Stephen Gadd was every bit as fine a Kurwenal as I had expected him to be. Blessed with a fine stage presence, athletic, urgent in demeanour, he produced a nobility of tone and melodic line that was unalloyed pleasure to hear. His German 'sound' and diction is also an example to others. Andrew Rees was effective and made a strong impression as Melot, holding his own in some fine singing company and bringing the character to life. But the other star male turn was Clive Bayley as King Marke, dressed as a small-town solicitor or bank manager, the cares of the world on his shoulders, and producing some utterly wonderful bass singing: tender, affectionate, always loving towards the hero who has betrayed him. This was an inspiring assumption of the role and a classic case of the 'less is more' approach: Bayley had the audience simply eating out of the palm of his hand. It is worth seeing this Tristan to hear Bayley's Marke alone.
Now what about the architecture and overall musical control of the piece? Stephen Barlow conducted the English Chamber Orchestra and the first thing to say is that he clearly loves the work and has thought deeply about it. I have referred already to the tentative start (first night nerves?) Happily, as Act One got truly under way, stage and pit came together and by the time the excellent small chorus came on, the playing began to take off. And overall, by the end, I had warmed considerably to Barlow's conducting. I found some of his tempi on the slow side, but the visceral excitement he and the ECO managed to inject into the big set-piece passages was exhilarating. Barlow's interpretation will, I suspect, change over the course of the run but on this first night's showing, he and the orchestra have it in them to deliver a really fine Tristan und Isolde - they are almost there.
So what are the moments that do not work, and why not the fifth star? Firstly, the bedroom scene needs a complete rethink. As some of Wagner's most glorious, passionate love music builds up in the pit, our hero and heroine turn down the duvet on the bed and - height of haughtiness - flick the pillows at each other. No! Then there are the cardboard cutout images that slide in from the wings, a goblet and a skull, and a knife that is lowered from above. Unnecessary. The stage fight is pretty messy too. As for the dumb scene that accompanies Tristan's Act Three narration, opinions will differ. I found it effective and aesthetically pleasing - others may feel it dumbs down the narrative and the back history. But director Fielding does not mind taking these sorts of risks, and on the whole I applaud him for it. He certainly has a joined-up concept for the work as a whole, and I found the whole evening to be stimulating, of an overall high musical standard, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Mellor as Isolde was in tears at the end: what she had delivered was deeply-felt and powerful. Bayley (still in character?) looked slightly bemused at his rapturous reception. As The Grange receded in the evening air, with Wagner's ground-breaking harmonies and tonalities all around us, I felt that something pretty special had been attempted. A total triumph, no. But a wonderful first attempt.