Review: Stupendous effort with a musical milestone

Clive Peacock reviews Tristan und Isolde at Longborough Festival Opera, June 18

Longborough’s principal asset is Anthony Negus, a Wagnerian conductor fit to rank with the very finest around today. His approach to the wonderful Prelude and the evocation of Act 2 were memorably superb; the Prelude providing a theme of striking impressiveness and the bulk of Act 2 producing the ardent fervour and heat of the incomparable love-duet. Hopefully, Longborough has secured Negus’s services to take charge of next year’s Tannhäuser, with its masterpiece overture and Wagner’s developing use of the leitmotiv.

Negus’s huge orchestral achievements are well supported on stage with Ben Ormerod’s brilliant lighting plots and Kimie Nakano’s use of Wieland Wagner’s 1960’s production sets including the Jungian symbols. The clever simplicity of the sets is most effective in creating a sense of space so sought after by Richard Wagner. Nakano’s very acceptable, blatant ‘crib’ of Wieland Wagner’s efforts is fully vindicated, but from where did the idea of dancers and bass clarinettist, Kate Romano, appearing on stage emanate? They simply serve as distractions, something Wieland would not have allowed!

All is well in the pit, and, for the most part, on stage too. How very good to see Lee Bisset making a very successful step up in her Wagnerian roles, from Freia in Das Rheingold with Opera North to Isolde. Her Liebestod was intelligently and movingly sung (even if she fluffed the final line); her acting never lacked interest from the ominous opening to the inexplicably tragic ending. Her Tristan, Neal Cooper, was at his best in Act 3 as he recalls the various ravishing experiences of their past together and conveys the anguish and longing for his death before, traditionally, tearing the wrappings from his wounds and falling dead in his beloved’s arms. But not so at Longborough, where director, Carmen Jakobi encourages the male of the two dances to rip the bandages from Tristan’s bare chest! I accept the reasoning behind this innovation and Jakobi’s explanation of the Jungian links but the dancers had the effect of distracting attention from the drama with the principals. There is no need to clutter the stage – Richard Wagner sought space!

The star of the night was Harriet Williams as Brangäne. She was very, very good having a great feel for the role and a Wagnerian breadth - she has quite a future in these roles. Andrew Slater (Kurwenal) conveyed his devotion to Tristan and his concern for Tristan’s welfare with great effect. Frode Olsen (King Marke) brought out the sense of betrayal at his nephew’s unfaithfulness; his monologue in Act 2 was remarkably well delivered.

Tristan und Isolde is a milestone in the history of music. The far-reaching influence of the work is huge and a performance of an opera of this magnitude in the smallish concert hall is a tremendous achievement. This success is built on the stupendous efforts of conductor, Anthony Negus and orchestra leader, Katharine Gittings. The event is hugely enjoyable; my sincere hope is news of the dancer innovation fails to reach Katharina Wagner as she puts the finishing touches to her new production of Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth!