Tristan und Isolde

Richard Wagner
Grange Park Opera
Theatre in the Woods, West Horsley

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Grange Park Opera, Surrey 2023 Tristan & Isolde Tristan (Gwyn Hughes Jones), Kurwenal (David Stout) Credit: Marc Brenner.
Grange Park Opera, Surrey 2023 Tristan & Isolde Isolde (Rachel Nicholls), Tristan (Gwyn Hughes Jones) Credit: Marc Brenner.
Grange Park Opera, Surrey 2023 Tristan & Isolde Brangäne (Christine Rice), Isolde (Rachel Nicholls), Tristan (Gwyn Hughes Jones) Credit: Marc Brenner

I have never seen a cast make Wagner’s vocal writing sound so easy. Grange Park’s Tristan und Isolde is a vocal tour de force, bursting with outstanding soloists.

It was a very hot evening in a packed and warm opera house, and I was slightly dreading the never-ending yearning of Wagner’s lengthy score. Luckily, his elongated longing and desperation was delivered captivatingly by the Gascoigne Orchestra. Conductor Stephen Barlow ran a very tight ship, from which true moments of beauty sailed out across the auditorium.

Wagner constantly proves that it is possible to create a musical climax which never resolves, leading to truly fiendish vocal lines for Tristan (Gwyn Hughes Jones) and Isolde (Rachel Nicholls) which were delivered with an outstanding range of vocal colour and finesse. Teamed with David Stout’s frustrated Kurwenal, Matthew Rose’s utterly devastated King Marke, Christine Rice’s troubled Brangaine, this is a superb cast, neatly topped off with a lustily sung chorus of sailors.

With Tristan und Isolde often performed on a more or less bare stage, it was a rare treat to find the action aboard Tristan’s ship. Stuffy Victoriana abounds—the sailors are clad in stiff-buttoned uniforms, sitting on upholstery in the state room of a warship. Nicholls is a fiery Isolde, leaping around the stage, determined to control her fate.

The set is repurposed into a drawing room for act 2, and the lovers share their never-ending night sat primly on the sofa, barely daring to get too close. Although the couple long for their break from reality, the act holds less eroticism and more intellectual discussion as they quest for the sublime.

The couple reach once again for the fatal potion as they are interrupted by King Marke, a neat symmetry from director and designer Charles Edwards, resulting in Tristan attempting to die at the end of each act.

The final act sees the stage in a stay of decay, littered with the broken furniture from before. Light plays a huge role throughout Edwards’s design, and in throughout act 3, towering doors open to let the daylight stream in, bringing despair and hope.

The opening to act three really shows off the Gascoigne Orchestra—broad chords spinning into a delicate texture as the violins climb together in thirds to celestial heights. Magical. This is swiftly followed by a heartbreaking cor anglaise solo ringing out from the balcony. A wonderful bit of writing from Wagner which mirrors the hunting horn calls that opened the first scene of act II. Hughes Jones delivers his lengthy monologue with great musicality, and in the smaller theatre of Grange Park, it’s possible to hear every word.

There are a few moments which are less convincing—King Marke enters and spies the couple’s intimate discussion but then sits down on a sofa with his back to them. Tristan reverses out of the stage doors for his death, which feels rather gimmicky, leaving Isolde with no body to grieve over.

Grange Park Opera isn’t afraid to tackle the bigger operas, but it seems Tristan und Isolde actually lends itself to a smaller theatre. It’s essentially a conversation piece, with some smaller ensemble scenes. The theatre’s size, teamed with it’s superb acoustics gives license to a performance with moments of great tenderness and beauty. A wonderful choice for the 2023 season, magnificently executed.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis

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