Much to Admire in Grange Park Opera’s Tristan und Isolde

14/07/2016

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists and Chorus of Grange Park Opera, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Martyn Brabbins (conductor), The Grange, Alresford, Hampshire, 13.7.2016. (JPr)

grange

Bryan Register (Tristan) & Rachel Nicholls (Isolde) in rehearsal
(c) Robert Workman

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

Cast:
Tristan: Bryan Register
Isolde: Rachel Nicholls
König Marke: Mats Almgren
Brangäne: Sara Fulgoni
Kurwenal: Stephen Gadd
Melot: Felix Kemp
A Steersman: Lancelot Nomura
A Young Sailor/A Shepherd: Adam Tunnicliffe

Billed as the ‘swansong’ of Grange Park Opera in its current location this perhaps should have been Lohengrin not Tristan und Isolde! As their website notes they are moving next year to Horsley: ‘Since its inception in 1998, Grange Park Opera has performed to some 250,000 people with more than 50 productions and 450 performances. In 18 festivals, it has become a treasured feature of the international operatic landscape. After 18 years at our former home, and that lease now terminated, it is time to build a permanent home for the next century. Grange Park Opera moves there in 2017.’

Opera will continue in the 550-seat theatre (with red velvet seats from the old Covent Garden) built within the nineteenth-century orangery but Grange Park Opera itself will be elsewhere. Their enterprising chief executive, Wasfi Kani, spoke before a front cloth showing the design of The Theatre in the Woods they are hoping to finish in time for the ambitious opening of their first season there next year, planned for 8th June with Joseph Calleja in Tosca. She thanked current sponsors and appealed for another £4million to reached their £10million target. They are already building and Ms Kani announced they were three days ahead of schedule. I wish them good luck. The blurb says that this ‘new 650-seat theatre is set just beyond the historic orchard and is modelled on the four-tiered horseshoe shape of La Scala, Milan, with a vibrant acoustic, and a generous orchestra pit.’ Despite the necessarily high ticket prices – because GPO is funded by box office income, donors and supporters alone – there is an urge ‘to abolish the myth of elitism that surrounds opera today’ and so each night there will be 50 cheap seats dedicated to under 30s.

It was good to see some Wagner before they move because as I wrote last year when I reviewed Fiddler on the Roof (review): ‘Getting there is an experience in itself and although not far from London in rural Hampshire it reminded me of travelling to Bayreuth. Wagner built the Festspielhaus there far enough away from Munich so only those most dedicated to his music would undertake the journey and as I drove up a long rutted road through green fields the portico of The Grange – a magnificent seventeenth-century neo-classical mansion – loomed in the distance and it gave me the same feeling of anticipation as I have when I see the Festspielhaus from the train on arrival in Bayreuth. Yes, there are marques for patrons to enjoy their champagne picnics and everyone is dressed in evening attire but there a great informality to all the splendid formality and everyone seems so friendly and welcoming. Again this is the same feeling I get in Germany … but not always for similar summer festival occasions in the UK.’ I’ll leave unwritten what festival in particular I have in mind!

Wasfi Kani had more to announce – if possibly overlooking Kurwenal, she said Tristan needs four leading singers and two of those previously announced had been changed just prior to these two performances. Anja Kampe was ill and Ms Kani said it was the first time she had received a doctor’s note from a world-class singer and Clive Bayley after finishing his performances at The Grange as King Philip II in Don Carlo did not feel he had König Marke in his voice. They were replaced by Britain’s Rachel Nicholls considered ‘one of the most exciting dramatic sopranos of her generation’ and Mats Almgren who I recently saw perform with Opera North in their Ring.

This has been long been announced as a concert performance but in the end I can definitely say I have seen many dramatically worse performances advertised as full stagings! It was performed within a panelled set obviously from another opera (apparently that recent Don Carlo) and not their 2011 Tristan that everyone speaks of in hushed and reverent tones but was never revived. An upper alcove allowed somewhere for Adam Tunnicliffe’s clear-voiced Young Sailor to open proceedings. There were a few atmospheric lighting changes, Isolde and Brangäne changed their dresses twice over the three acts, there were a couple of benches, a casket for the ‘potions’ and a goblet to drink from … and that was about it. Despite four ever-present music stands it all worked wonderfully well and the drama of Tristan and Isolde’s illicit affair unfolded convincingly thanks to Bryan Register and Rachel Nicholls who both knew their roles and sang off-book.

It is not clear when the ‘brief’ changed from a concert performance to this semi-staging which was – although lacking its video imagery – superior to the two Ring performances I saw as part of Opera North’s acclaimed cycle. It was the singers of the smaller roles who needed their scores and this often surprises me given the time they must have to prepare their roles. I am led to understand the singers devised the concept themselves; I have previously suggested they could do this more often without any particular help and was glad to have been proved right for once.

Martyn Brabbins is a vastly experienced conductor and gave a hint of what his contribution would be with a refined, dramatically paced and dynamically fluid Prelude. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra produced magnificent sounds throughout the long opera that were equal – and often superior – to that of the English National Opera Orchestra at the London Coliseum recently. The Prelude unwound slowly leading to Act I that gathered momentum to culminate in the confrontation between the lovers that was as swift as it was mentally deranged. Rather than lingering over its harmonic progressions, ‘O sink hernieder’ (seemingly uncut though I have lost confidence in spotting this) pulsated urgently. Marke’s monologue felt too slow … but does it every seem anything else? And in Act III, Brabbins ratcheted up the orchestral volume possibly a little too much given the small auditorium and occasionally his singers found the going a little hard. Nevertheless, orchestrally it was a remarkable Tristan that I would have been happy to experience in far more prestigious theatres.

Given the fact that finding an ideal cast for any Wagner operas these days seems a near-impossible task, Grange Park Opera’s mostly impressed. Many Wagnerian singers these days can often sing parts of the role but not always all of it! A case in point was Bryan Register’s stoic Tristan who was magnificent in his Act III ravings but not steady enough or entirely convincing elsewhere. Very reminiscent of his compatriot Robert Dean Smith – who I have heard approach Tristan the same way several times – Register’s voice had the same darkness and his Tristan displayed a great emotional range, was mostly accurate, tireless and sung with admirable ease for such a demanding role. I will suspend absolute judgement on Rachel Nicholls’s Isolde as she stepped in at the last moment and has been singing a number of Isoldes recently and this clearly has affected her voice. There were just too many strident high notes – bringing memories of the unfortunate Heidi Melton for ENO – which you could see on Ms Nicholls’s face she was often anticipating. She was happiest in those parts of the role which lay in the mezzo-ish parts of her voice but overall gave a regal portrayal of Isolde, more convincing in ecstasy than rage. Yet when Ms Nicholls relaxed more during Act III there was power and solidity from her that built toward a transfixing Liebestod (or Verklärung if you prefer) beginning with her lying on the floor.

It must be matter of lack of ambition in some singers because not for the first time Brangäne sounded to have everything needed to sing Isolde. The only singer who appears to have progressed in recent times from the subordinate to the leading role is Petra Lang who was an incomparable Brangäne and will soon debut as Isolde at Bayreuth. Sara Fulgoni seemed to have the technique and security needed for Isolde and the radiance of her top notes was what was sometimes lacking from Rachel Nicholls. Ms Fulgoni also compellingly conveyed the weight of her character’s sense of responsibility for the lovers’ sufferings. Stephen Gadd – even though umbilically connected to his score – was a very fine and suitably compassionate Kurwenal and Felix Kemp did as much as he could with what Wagner gives him as Melot. The lanky, shaven headed, Mats Almgren was an unusually gravelly and sepulchral-voiced König Marke but he also made an important contribution to this semi-staging’s emotional temperature. The men’s voices from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus got their moment in the limelight as the set parted at the end of the Act I and their choruses throughout this act really hit the mark.

Grange Park Opera will present more Wagner in 2017 with performances of Die Walküre with Bryan Register (Siegmund) and Rachel Nicholls (Sieglinde) and on the basis of this performance it is not to be missed in their new Theatre in the Woods.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the future of Grange Park Opera visit http://www.grangeparkopera.co.uk/.

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