Anthony Negus and Carmen Jakobi’s Tristan und Isolde at Longborough Excels Musically and Scenically

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Longborough Festival Opera / Anthony Negus (conductor), Longborough, 12.6.2017. (JPr)

Lee Bisset (Isolde), Peter Wedd (Tristan) - LFO Tristan und Isolde 2017 cr Matthew Williams-Ellis (27)
Lee Bisset (Isolde) & Peter Wedd (Tristan) in LFO’s Tristan und Isolde (c) Matthew Williams-Ellis

Tristan – Peter Wedd
Isolde – Lee Bisset
Kurwenal – Stuart Pendred
King Marke – Geoffrey Moses
Brangäne – Harriet Williams
Melot – Stephen Rooke
Sailor/Shepherd – Sam Furness
Helmsman – Adam Green

Director – Carmen Jakobi
Designer – Kimie Nakano
Lighting Designer – Ben Ormerod
Chorus Master – Thomas Payne

If it is worth writing once it probably can bear repetition, so I will go down memory lane again after this visit to Longborough which is becoming as much of an annual event as my forthcoming return to Bayreuth. The first two times I saw Tristan und Isolde were in 1980; firstly at Covent Garden with Zubin Mehta conducting Jon Vickers and Berit Lindholm, and then that summer when I went to Munich to see Spas Wenkoff and Ingrid Bjoner in the leading roles. I cannot resist repeating my memory how Act II began in that production with the stage seemingly full of poppies that Tristan had to negotiate his way through to get to Isolde. I have never seen anything better than that. There have been very many performances of the opera in the intervening years with the most recent earlier this year when Bjoner’s pupil, Petra Lang, sang her first Isolde in Vienna.

I go down memory lane mainly because Martin Graham – who with his wife Lizzie is the driving force behind this remarkable theatre for Wagner and much more in the Cotswolds – began the evening by coming on stage to reminisce. He spoke of the two letters he wrote about his plans to significant musical figures with similar forenames: Georg Solti and George Christie. The former replied ‘You must be mad’ and the latter said come and see me ‘you need help’ which Martin actually found quite encouraging. Reflecting on more innocent times, he spoke of being befriended by someone in Longborough (where he grew up) and who he wrote about in the programme: ‘A man in the village talked about and sang music – from Mozart and Beethoven to Brahms and Schubert – thus sowing the seeds of a firm and welcome education … never Wagner.’ The 500-seat theatre – with old Royal Opera House seats set in idyllic surroundings – is the result of a lifelong passion for music and there was a Ring cycle in the 2013 Wagner bicentenary and another is planned for 2022 when Martin will be 80 years young.

One of the ongoing delights of Longborough is that despite the high ticket prices it continues to attract a mixed audience of veteran opera-goers and many encountering certain things for the first time. Tristan und Isolde is the story of illicit love and conflicting chivalric duty, but was wonderfully summed up in 2015 – when this production was first put on – when I overheard someone describe the plot as: ‘I’m not very good with Wagner … I think it’s about some Cornish man who fools around with an Irish girl’!

And indeed it is too easy to get bogged down in all the proto-Schopenhauerism and analysis of the ‘Tristan chord’ without realising that the opera is simply about the ‘unstoppable force’ of Tristan and Isolde’s love meeting the ‘immoveable object’ of cultural and social convention. Wagner’s new sumptuous harmonic sound world immerses the listener in the tale of the erstwhile adversaries who become the most passionate of lovers. Tristan and Isolde lose their moral inhibition as a result of a love-potion in Act I; day becomes night in Act II and they are free to explore their desire for one another during the great love duet. King Marke, discovers his unwilling bride in flagrante delicto but Tristan and Isolde’s love transcends his death in Act III – which he has brought on himself – and her self-sacrifice finally unites their souls as the last notes of the opera die away.

The director, Carmen Jakobi, explains her thoughts about the opera in a programme essay and writes how, for her, ‘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, the design creates space for a Jungian exploration of the characters’ psychological labyrinth.’ I am repeating myself again but – for those who know their Wagner – it is all very familiar with images from Wieland Wagner’s post-WWII ‘New Bayreuth’ and other legendary Tristan stagings from Götz Friedrich, Heiner Müller and Yannis Kokkos amongst others.

One of the less successful ideas – when first on in 2015 – involved two dancing alter egos and this has been jettisoned and the production is all the better for it. There remains some subtle use of shadow play at the rear of the stage for the sailors in Act I and the shepherd’s piping and events surrounding the death of Tristan’s mother and father in Act III. In Longborough’s intimate surroundings Jakobi, conductor Anthony Negus’s wife, concentrates simply on that ‘inner drama’ bringing out a quality of acting from the protagonists that could not have been bettered at Stratford-upon-Avon, a mere 20 or so miles away. The underlying motives, thoughts and emotions of all the characters – and the meaning of the words they were singing – was seen clearly in the facial expressions of all the singers.  This allowed the audience to engage with the drama, whether they knew the original German or were following the story through the surtitles.

Like his mentor Reginald Goodall, the conductor Anthony Negus has become recognised by ‘the many’ as the exceptional Wagnerian ‘the few’ always knew he was. Surprisingly like Goodall his Wagner seems to be getting quicker as the years pass. In 1984 – when Goodall was 82 – he brought a seemingly renewed vigour to Welsh National Opera’s Die Walküre in Cardiff. Negus’s Tristan was remarkable for a similar sweep, passion and sheer energy he bought to the score. Occasionally I would have liked more opportunity for the music to pause for breath (Luftpause) than it was allowed. I doubt whether this Tristan passed the 3¾ hour mark and was at least 30 minutes shorter than under Mikko Franck’s baton in Vienna earlier this year. Nevertheless, whether any orchestra (here 70plus) has ever played any better for Negus at Longborough I doubt it, and – on this hearing – they lose nothing in comparison with Covent Garden, Vienna or Bayreuth.

Longborough’s singers are often new to their roles but on this occasion Peter Wedd (Tristan) and Lee Bisset (Isolde) sang here in 2015, the latter whilst heavily pregnant. Wedd has been moving into the lyrical Wagner repertoire in recent years and his Tristan was astonishingly energetic and mirrored Negus’s account of the score. It was almost as if this Tristan was Siegfried’s son. His dark-hued timbre does not always allow him the line one might ideally wish, but he definitely sings all three acts without straining or barking at any point. Wedd is passionate and accomplished throughout, and in Act III is astonishingly compelling and explores Tristan’s delirium with a vocal and dramatic freedom I haven’t since I saw René Kollo’s final Tristan performance in Berlin in 2000. As Tristan’s faithful retainer, Kurwenal, Stuart Pendred gave the best performance I have heard from him.  Pendred’s rich bass-baritone would be ideal for King Marke in future and here it was wizened Jeremy Corbyn lookalike Geoffrey Moses who brought dignity and gravitas to King Marke’s lament, although he sounded a little tired. Stephen Rooke repeated his reliable Melot; Sam Furness made telling contributions as the Sailor and a plaintive Shepherd; and there was a small, valiant, chorus which bodes well for next year’s Der fliegende Holländer.

Harriet Williams’s concerned – and finely sung – Brangäne was another remarkable world-class performance and she once again proved a marvellous foil to Isolde to whom Jakobi appears to suggest she is particularly close. Lee Bisset has a voice born for Wagner even if – as in 2015 – I believe it is possibly a size too big for Longborough. She undoubtedly brought her Lady Macbeth-like Isolde to life and I believed the emotional journey she goes through over the course of the three acts. There is fury and rage in Act I, ecstasy in Act II and this Isolde’s transfiguration (Verklärung) was dignified and incredibly profound as she ended with a magnificent Liebestod. In her last few minutes Bisset rode the orchestra with an ease and serenity I would like more of earlier in the evening. On occasions I thought her free-flowing voice was just a little too abandoned and her words came and went.

Longborough Festival Opera continues to strive for the highest standards and seems to get better each year. I thought it would do well to equal the success of last year’s Tannhäuser (review click here) but for the third year running they have raised the Wagner bar. This was undoubtedly the best Wagner I have seen there both musically and scenically. Until next year perhaps?

Jim Pritchard

For more details about Longborough Festival Opera and the performances visit their website

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