Of love and shadows

Edward Seckerson welcomes the return of Mark Elder to ENO with this inspired orchestration of Tristan and Isolde
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You know from the quality of silence in those expectant fermatas of the prelude if something special is imminent. It is. You may travel the world in search of it - the great, the elusive, the truly international Tristan and Isolde. But suddenly it's there in your own back yard. It took Mark Elder's departure from English National Opera fully to bring home to us what his absence from the house would mean. Well, he's back to remind us. And if this, his first Tristan, is any indication of Tristans to come, then hold your breath. Elder has the authority, the vision, the reach of a great Wagnerian. He finds the inner-pulse of this music every time. He concentrates the mind short term, he thinks long term. His orchestra repays the inspiration.

So there's your first good reason to sniff out that hard-to-find ticket for this eagerly awaited new production. The second is David Alden's poetic staging. On the slow rise of the curtain, Isolde and Brangane sit silently among their suitcases. Like Tristan, we see no ship. Journey's end is the bricked-up facade of a derelict theatre (designer Ian MacNeil), once a place of dreams, but no more. Except in our imagination.

To Alden, the drama is in the physicality, every position, every move, every gesture an extension of the musical expression. He is never shy of the music, indeed will readily confound our expectations by playing against it. Like delaying the drinking of the love-potion until after the orchestra climax, so that the lovers toast death as a softening in the music portends love. This is the other Alden, the lyric Alden. Wolfgang Gobbel's stunning lighting is very much a creative part of that, casting shadow, shifting perspectives, creating the space and distance and atmosphere that Alden thrives on.

The rhetoric can be thrilling. Isolde holds aloft Tristan's blazing sword, and as she extinguishes the flame, the cloak of darkness duly descends on their "night of loving". Alden has devised a convincing physical narrative for this ever-problematic duet. He pointedly keeps the lovers apart. They touch only once, fleetingly. Their love is not of this world; death alone can consummate it. At the climax, his staging dramatically counterpoints ecstasy with agony, love with death. The figure of King Mark is seen slowly, fatefully, advancing, the sky turns red, and a swarm of silhouetted huntsmen drag on the carcass of a slaughtered stag.Very Alden, very operatic, despite (or maybe because of) the taxidermic stag.

Casting Tristan and Isolde from mere mortals was ever wishful thinking. As Isolde, ENO has Elizabeth Connell, inclined to enunciate like a society hostess but in resounding good shape vocally. If only there were that deeper intensity and artistry that is so hard to define but so easy to recognise. Susan Parry (Brangane) has it. And she is strikingly good on stage, so good that Alden would seem to have invested her with the burden of Isolde's anguish. As Tristan, George Gray is immensely brave. If he could find more nuance, more beauty in the sound (the voice loses quality in piano), he could travel far with the role. He goes at Act 3 like there were no next performance, the symbiotic relationship with Jonathan Summers's wild and wonderful Kurwenal as strong as I can remember it. The same might be said of Gwynne Howell's moving King Mark, his anguish so real it hurts, and every word - please note the rest of the cast - audible. A memorable night, though. In Elder's case, inspired.

n At the London Coliseum, WC2. 14, 20, 24, 28 Feb, 2, 7, 11 and 16 March. Booking: 0171-632 8300