Tom Sutcliffe on a turbo-charged version of Luise Miller and a thrilling production of Tristan and Isolde

Kabale und Liebe under the title Luise Miller (which Verdi used when he turned it into an opera) has been the latest popular Michael Grandage production of Schiller at the Donmar Warehouse. Mike Poulton’s new version, trimmed by a third and melodramatically turbo-charged, reduced the story to a simple monochrome morality. The pseudo-eighteenth-century incidental music ended up suggesting Midsomer Murders more than Mozart.

The acting was glossy, self-conscious and rather insincere, like an eighteenth-century television thriller. Luise’s musician father had a Scottish accent, for no good reason, and was far too young. The handsome hero Ferdinand seemed just not very bright, though the interest of the piece lies in his rebellious suspicions about how politics really works.

Showy business

The interval curtain showed the Chancellor’s private secretary Wurm forcing Luise to swear a corporal oath that she will never ever reveal that the letter she has just written, implying she’s had a liaison with Hofmarschall von Kalb, was in fact dictated by him and is a total fabrication. Wurm takes a monstrance out of an attaché case, places it on a white cloth he has spread on top of the case, and physically pins Luise (who at the start of the play he has declared he wants to marry) to the floor, making her touch the monstrance.

Actually this piece of showy physical business is interpolated by Grandage and not in Schiller’s original, which creates its special magic by showing how words and deep conversations create and terminate both intrigue and romance: the emotions that concerned Schiller were all more subtle and true to life than what we saw on the cramped close-up Donmar stage with its studio props and sparse furniture and almost no genuine sense of any epoch.

Grandage is regarded as a good director. But his production of this great Schiller masterpiece was all about little quirks and details advertising to the audience what they (we) are supposed to make of it all, whereas the kind of acting I respect is true to life, full of feeling, and inhabited without artifice.

Contemporary feel

The really knock-out Wagner of the season was Tristan und Isolde at Wasfi Kanis modest scaled Grange Park Opera near Alresford in Hampshire. It was directed as well as designed by David Fielding – one of the great designers of the Mark Elder era at English National Opera, incidentally – and made me think about the text, especially in the third act, more than any of the other twenty or so stagings of this piece that I have seen.

It was contemporary in appearance and in feeling – the first act on a sort of modern ferry, the second act in Isolde’s Twenties-decor mansion bedroom dominated by a double bed, and the final act in a cottage that might have been in the far west of Ireland with an evocative seascape view through windows on the right. The acting was well directed and natural (with a very good but not famous cast) and it was very well sung. But what made the material tell so effectively was the cunning and bold play with certain symbols in the great love-scene at the middle of the work, and with ghosts of characters being mentioned in Tristan’s rambling monologue in the extraordinary third act – preparing for the arrival of Isolde and then the rest of the tragic assembly, ultimately with the deaths of the main players.

Basically this was a naturalistic production telling the story coherently. But the naturalism blended into a dream when the walls of the bedroom peeled back and the lovers were in the woodland Wagner originally conceived. We were reminded of the elements of the tragedy by large symbols that came on stage from each side and above – such as the chalice of the shared love potion, the sword that would wound and doom – and the literalness actually firmed the power of the text being sung. I had found Tristan’s arrival in Isolde’s bedroom in the second act, slamming the door at the musical moment, absolutely riveting – the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Stephen Barlow’s conducting was superbly measured and responsive – probably the finest conducting I have heard at Grange Park: the usual cuts of fifteen minutes made, the focus unerring.

Deeply moving

The ghosts in the third act were an original idea, consciously bringing out with a meaningful scenario what was going through Tristan’s mind, which he was singing about. The music of this opera is among the greatest in the whole literature. I have never been so deeply moved at so many points, or felt the nature of the tragedy so powerfully. Perhaps the text came over more because I have been reading my wife Meredith Oakes’s new English verse translation of Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris (which opens at the Theatre Royal, Bath on 21 September), and Wagner’s mythical opera has a comparably tragic worldview and seems to speak the same poetic language.

I wept, which I rarely do in Tristan – usually so objective in feeling, so coolly philosophical. The Grange Park audience seemed equally as if witnessing what had happened to friends of theirs, with the embarrassing regrettable loyalty crisis marriage break-ups generate. This thrilling operatic experience restored my faith in the intelligence and profound interest of a piece about whic (however much I love the music) I have always been slightly dubious. ND