Longborough Festival Opera Set High Standard with Tristan und Isolde

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Longborough Festival Opera / Anthony Negus.(conductor), Longborough, 18.6.2015. (JPr)

Picture credit: Longborough Festival Opera PS photo left to right ... Brangäne: Harriet Williams, Isolde: Lee Bisset and Tristan: Neal Cooper
l-r Brangäne: Harriet Williams, Isolde: Lee Bisset & Tristan: Neal Cooper (c) Longborough Festival Opera

Tristan – Neal Cooper
Isolde – Lee Bisset
Kurwenal – Andrew Slater
King Marke – Frode Olsen
Brangäne – Harriet Williams
Melot – Stephen Rooke
Shepherd – Edward Hughes
Sailor – Adam Tunnicliffe
Helmsman – Thomas Colwell

Director – Carmen Jakobi
Designer – Kimie Nakano
Lighting Designer – Ben Ormerod
Choreography – Didy Veldman

It is thirty-five years since I first saw Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden with Zubin Mehta conducting Jon Vickers and Berit Lindholm. In that summer of 1980 I went to Munich to see Spas Wenkoff and Ingrid Bjoner in the leading roles. The opening to Act II of that latter production involved a seemingly endless field of poppies that Tristan negotiated on his way to Isolde. Whilst I have seen very many performances of the opera since 1980, Longborough marks the first of another Tristan ‘double header’ because after hearing Anthony Negus conduct (his wife) Carmen Jakobi’s production I will venture to Bayreuth in August to see Christian Thielemann raise his baton on Katharina Wagner’s much-anticipated new staging. How would … how could … they compare? Well, Longborough Festival Opera have actually set a high standard and with their first Wagner venture beyond the Ring – which they have concentrated on previously in their 17-year history – it was by far and away the best Wagner I have seen there, musically and scenically, with certain provisos.

I have been coming to Longborough Festival Opera since 1998 and the genial Martin Graham (co-founder of the enterprise with his wife, Lizzie) took to the stage before the performance to reflect on the journey from the ‘mud and trenches’ then to now when they can offer not just one but two casts for Tristan und Isolde – one of the most notoriously difficult operas to find adequate singers for. Martin Graham suggested that back when they began they could never have hoped to be in the position they are now and he mused on how they need more than ‘hope’ to keep going. It is interesting to see that a general manager, Jennifer Smith, is now overseeing all the future plans including the next Ring cycles – hopefully in 2020 – following the great success of those in 2013.

Longborough is the epitome of country house opera and it is a tale oft-told how the Grahams converted through the years an old chicken shed into a more-than-adequate small theatre seating 500 in old seats recycled form London’s Royal Opera House. Front-of-house has been much improved recently and there is a terracotta façade topped by Mozart, Verdi … and of course, Wagner. The roof remains functionally metal and there is no air-conditioning which could be a problem on a very hot day but over the years an orchestra pit has been created where 60plus freelance musicians are crammed together. However, this production – enterprising as it was – did highlight Longborough’s one last problem … the lack of depth (as well as height and width) to the stage.

Longborough attracts a mixed audience of veteran opera-goers and many seeing particular works for the first time. Tristan und Isolde which unfolds over four hours of music is multi-layered and open to much re-interpretation. The story of Tristan and Isolde’s illicit love and his conflicting chivalric duty as the adopted son of King Marke has never been better summed up than in the following comment I overheard: ‘I’m not very good with Wagner … I think it’s about some Cornish man who fools around with an Irish girl’!

I try not to read other reviewers’ opinions before writing my reviews but this was the third of four performances and it was not entirely possible this time. People seemed only too eager to tell me what they had read or thought about it themselves if they had already seen it. I must say that it was much – much – better than I was led to believe! In Carmen Jakobi’s programme essay she explained how ‘The “inner drama” experienced by the protagonists dominates over their “outer” conflicts. Kimie Nakano’s design symbolically represents an outer reality with each Act – a ship, a night forest and the desolation of Tristan’s castle. Her design references Japanese theatre aesthetics with its clear lines and uncluttered stage, creating reflections of Tristan and Isolde’s soul world and their Day-Night antithesis. Together with the chiaroscuro of Ben Ormerod’s lighting and Didy Veldman’s choreography, the design creates space for a Jungian exploration of the characters’ psychological labyrinth.’ That choreography involved two dancers Katie Lusby and Mbulelo Ndabeni illustrating some of the backstory of the ‘protagonists’, as well as, gyrating in Act II though a Kamasutra-inspired pas de deux. It was basically all very familiar from images from post-WWII ‘New Bayreuth’ – and not only was I thinking about Wieland Wagner but also many other legendary Tristan stagings from others, such as, Götz Friedrich, Heiner Müller and Yannis Kokkos.

Carmen Jakobi’s production was very brave and I admired all the intellectual input behind what we were shown. This was the second cast – I do not mean that dismissively because if the others were better than them it must have be quite a performance – and the Personenregie was admirable. I believed in the characters I was presented with and this is most important because Wagner called Tristan und Isolde ‘eine Handlung’ – literally, a drama. Despite some oddities such as the appearance on stage of a solo bass clarinettist to accompany King Marke’s Act II monologue it would have worked even more splendidly in a performance space about three times the size. Tristan and Isolde’s dancing alter egos should have been more in the background just like all hidden thoughts and desires are in anyone’s mind. Because they were in the foreground so much they must have been especially distracting for those seeing the opera for the first time.

Anthony Negus – much like his mentor Reginald Goodall – is belatedly becoming recognised as the exceptional Wagnerian he is – and equally late in his life. It is to Longborough’s great credit that they have given him the opportunity to conduct the Ring, Tristan this year and with Tannhäuser to follow next year. I missed a sense of timelessness in what we heard despite some splendidly realised spatial sonorities. It was a reading characterised by sublime sensitivity and tenderness. The contribution of his exceptionally well-prepared orchestra began in almost chamber music-like fashion with lightened textures. This rubbed off on most of his singers too and there was a remarkable range of nuance from all the principals. This should not imply a lack of passion or of atmosphere and these increased as Negus became more confident in his singers and let his musicians off the leash more and more to set up a feeling of forward momentum that was in keeping with the dramatic situation yet never undersold the musical argument itself. Consequently, the score was played quite splendidly whilst the restricted pit clearly demanded a more muscular and propulsive Tristan than I expect to hear in Bayreuth.

Longborough’s singers are often mostly young or at the very least new to their roles. Neal Cooper created more of an impression recently as Melot at Covent Garden than the small role deserved and now as the ‘star’ impressed as a stoic Tristan. That he has studied German literature was clear from his great attention to the text he was singing. He had an emotive heroic sound and only the occasional use of falsetto suggested Mime rather than Tristan or Tannhäuser which would be another good role for him. As Kurwenal, Andrew Slater (husband of the other Isolde, Rachel Nicholls) had a sterling stage presence to match some emotionally committed singing, and there were excellent contributions from Stephen Rooke’s stalwart Melot, Edward Hughes’s plaintive Shepherd and the small resilient chorus. Frode Olson was a suitably bluff and patriarchal King Marke.

Harriet Williams’s concerned Brangäne was another standout performance and she proved a marvellous counterbalance to Lee Bisset’s Isolde who was quite exceptional. Lee Bisset has a voice born for Wagner even if it is possibly a size too big for Longborough. She was totally believable in her emotional journey from the fury and rage over Tristan’s perceived deceit in Act I, through the ecstasy of Act II to end with her Liebestod over Tristan’s dead body. Throughout she rode the orchestra with effortless power despite being heavily pregnant – that fact alone made her convincing and compelling performance even more remarkable.

Jim Pritchard

For more details about Longborough Festival Opera and the performances visit their website http://www.lfo.org.uk/.