Review: Anish Kapoor Ditches Sculpture For Opera

Tristan and Isolde, London Coliseum ★★★★☆

By Sam Smith Last edited 23 months ago
Review: Anish Kapoor Ditches Sculpture For Opera Tristan and Isolde, London Coliseum 4
Anish Kapoor's sets are a striking feature of Daniel Kramer's production of Tristan and Isolde © ENO/Catherine Ashmore
Anish Kapoor’s sets are a striking feature of Daniel Kramer’s production of Tristan and Isolde © ENO / Catherine Ashmore

Anish Kapoor, of Orbit Tower fame, is the designer behind English National Opera’s new Tristan and Isolde — and he plays out the opera’s central themes in his sets largely to great effect.

Most people know that Wagner operas are long, but not everyone realises just how varied they are. The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, which appeared at the London Coliseum last year, is a frequently humorous study of human foibles, while at the other end of the spectrum Tristan and Isolde is a rich, reflective meditation on the theme of unrequited love.

Not that Tristan and Isolde’s relationship gets off to the strongest of starts after he manages to kill her fiancé! He follows this up by taking her from Ireland to Cornwall to marry not him, but his master King Marke. Out of regret and disgust respectively they agree to take their own lives, but end up falling in love when the poison they drink turns out to be a love potion. In spite of all this, the opera isn’t actually a comedy!

Partly inspired by the philosophy of Schopenhauer, the piece considers how by day society’s prying eyes force Tristan and Isolde to be apart, but under the cloak of night they can find fulfilment in each other.

So how does Kapoor play out the opera’s central theme? Well, in act one a golden pyramid bathed in orange light is divided into three sections, with Tristan and Isolde each occupying one of the outer two. They are sometimes able to join in the central one when it is cloaked in darkness, but not when it glows with light.

Act two features a hollowed out moon, which not only signifies the night, but gives the lovers a hidden grotto-like area in which their passions can boil over. When they are subsequently discovered, however, they are sedated, revealing how society drugs, and hence attempts to brainwash, them.

Stuart Skelton as Tristan and Heidi Melton as Isolde © ENO / Alastair Muir

There are weaker moments too, and unfortunately a disproportionate number of these occur in act three. When streams of blood flow from Tristan’s body across a huge screen that stands behind him, this does not serve the drama so much as Kapoor’s appetite for creating visually striking images.

There are a multitude of interesting directorial touches, and the lovers’ loyal servants, Kurwenal and Brangäne, also become comic sidekicks as they spend most of act one onstage as all-seeing presences. These two parts are played very well by Craig Colclough and Karen Cargill respectively, but the real star of the evening is Stuart Skelton who as Tristan reveals a rich and expansive tenor voice. However, Heidi Melton is equally fine as Isolde, while Matthew Rose as King Marke performs at the height of his game and with the utmost sensitivity. Edward Gardner’s conducting is precise, moving and insightful.

Tristan and Isolde is undoubtedly a slow moving affair, and it is best experienced when you are in the right frame of mind. It can certainly help to have had a lie-in that morning so that you are wide awake and in the mood to let the music embrace you, but with the performance being in English this opera will never feel as accessible as it does right now.

Until 9 July (eight performances) at the London Coliseum, Saint Martin's Lane, Charing Cross, WC2N 4ES. For tickets (£12-£145) visit the English National Opera website. Londonist saw this opera on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 19 June 2016