The best arts festivals deliver more than fun. They challenge, stimulate and provoke, with tailor-made events you wouldn’t/couldn’t find elsewhere. The Aldeburgh Festival has an outstanding record for that sort of thing, and opened last week with a fine example: Britten’s Les Illuminations packaged as a theatre-piece with acrobats, trapeze artists and aerial gymnasts sweeping round the heads of the musicians – the young, bright and game Aurora Orchestra.
Played out like a small-scale Cirque du Soleil, it lacked the glamour, polish and (most critically) budget of a Cirque show, but it still had energy, excitement, drive. And if the execution wasn’t perfect, the idea was brilliant.
Les Illuminations sets exuberant texts by Arthur Rimbaud that describe a world of riotous sensuality, half-carnival, half-nightmare. Britten’s score, for strings and solo voice, is dazzlingly virtuosic, and got everything it needed here under conductor Nicholas Collon. The soprano Sarah Tynan interacted bravely with the circus turns and even went up on a wire herself, trying to look as though she didn’t mind. Impressively beyond the call of duty for a singer.
Wagner’s mighty Tristan and Isolde is beyond the call of duty for a lot of healthy opera companies. For an ailing one like ENO it’s almost rash. But the production that’s just opened at the Coliseum is in many ways a triumph: well-sung, well-conducted (Edward Gardner) and with elemental, abstract set designs by the illustrious Anish Kapoor that give the show distinctive class.
The only problems are the costumes (which, in contrast to the purity of the Kapoor sets, are grotesque: Isolde makes her Act I entrance in a shapeless wrap that makes her look like a malevolent hot water bottle) and production concepts by director Daniel Kramer that read Wagner’s tragic opera as a comedy. The lesser roles prove slapstick. And it might as well be Godot that we’re waiting for in Act III, rather than the love-sick heroine.
But love as sickness is, in fact, the underlying idea of the staging. Tristan is an opera about love as an escape from life, fulfilled only in death. And love, says Kramer, amplifies the madness of a mad world. So what else is there to do but laugh?
I’m not sure Wagner would have laughed at Mr Kramer’s jokes. But he would surely have enjoyed the lead performances of Heidi Melton (as Isolde) and Stuart Skelton (Tristan), who rebut the notion that large-statured singers can’t be credible and captivating. They express their love with ardent power. And Skelton’s clear, fresh resonance makes him perhaps the most attractive Tristan on the world stage – at least for the moment, until Jonas Kaufmann steps up to the plate.