Tristan und Isolde

Anthony Negus
Longborough Festival Opera Chorus and Orchestra
14 June 2017
Opera House Longborough
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanPeter Wedd
IsoldeLee Bisset
BrangäneHarriet Williams
KurwenalStuart Pendred
König MarkeGeoffrey Moses
MelotStephen Rooke
Ein junger SeemannSam Furness
Ein HirtSam Furness
SteuermannAdam Green

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

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 | Longborough, 12.6.2017

A Flesh & Blood Tristan at Longborough

There’s no escaping the fact that Tristan und Isolde is a static opera: things happen very slowly (though each act ends very quickly), the characters are endlessly articulate about their own dilemmas and the central love scene is a Schopenhauerian discourse on the impossibility of achieving love in mortal life. For what is nominally a passionate love story, Wagner’s text is extremely cerebral – and too many directors have taken this as their cue to deliver chilly high concept productions in which the lovers seem under the thrall of nothing more troubling than an intellectual fascination with each other.

So it was refreshing when Peter Wedd’s Tristan and Lee Bisset’s Isolde spent most of Act 2 in a carnal embrace, only breaking off from each other when it was necessary to sing. This was a production which emphasised the totality of the lovers’ passion, physical as much as mental, Brangane’s “truth drug” having revealed the reality of their feelings. In other words, a flesh and blood Tristan, powerfullly acted and sung by principals who made up in conviction for what they occasionally lacked in vocal glamour.

First among equals was Lee Bisset, a natural Wagnerian who impressed as Sieglinde in Opera North’s Ring project, and who here delivered an Isolde that was more than the equal of any you will find on the international stage today. Other singers might have more beautiful voices, but beauty in Wagner comes a poor third to intelligence and emotional engagement with the role. This was a performance with a through line: the icy, passive-aggressive princess of Act 1 was a very different proposition to the woman who sang the “Liebestod” at the finale, and Bisset had the measure of this trajectory, offering reflective truth rather than generalised emotion at every turn.

Peter Wedd’s Tristan was equally impressive, building on his fine Lohengrin for WNO some years back. This Tristan was a relatively youthful figure with a baritonal heft that at times recalled the young Peter Hofmann. Wedd’s acting has an appealing stillness, particularly in his confrontation with Isolde in Act 1, and he was fully equal to the challenge of the Act 3 delirium – a hurdle at which many previous Tristans have fallen – making us idenitfy with the character’s agony (“I yearn to die, yet yearning makes me live…”).

Elsewhere, Harriet Williams was a fine Brangäne and Stuart Pendred an appropriately stalwart Kurwenal, while Geoffrey Moses’ almost spectrally thin King Marke was appropriately sympathetic. Stephen Rooke impressed in the brief but vital role of Melot.

There seemed to be a whiff of post-war Bayreuth in both Carmen Jakobi’s production and Kimie Nakano’s designs. The action taking place around a single significant piece of set (the barque in Act 1, Tristan’s rock in Act 3) and the careful placement of items (the wall-torch in Act 2) riveted the eye. Jakobi had clearly encouraged her cast to dwell upon their feelings and motivations and we were given some stage pictures that will live long in the memory, including Isolde’s sensuous anticipation of Tristan in Act 2 and Tristan’s realistic death in Act 3, for example. Ben Ormerod’s lighting design – all mottled hues and slow fades – served Jakobi and Nakano’s conception well.

In the pit, Anthony Negus presided over a probing but never eccentric reading of the score that made a virtue of the intimate confines of the Longborough auditorium. A disciple of the late Reginal Goodall, Negus brought much of his mentor’s scholarly attention to detail to the performance but never sacrificed forward momentum to linger over detail. The Longborough Festival Orchestra followed him unerringly throughout.

A final word for the pleasure of being able to enjoy an opera such as this in such a splendidly intimate setting. This Tristan – a revival of a production premiered in 2015 – gets the 2017 Festival off to a cracking start.

Richard Ely | 09 Juni 2017

The Spectator

One of the most exalting operatic experience I have had

In an essay called ‘Wagner’s fluids’, Susan Sontag concludes, ‘The depth and grandeur of feeling of which Wagner is capable is combined in his greatest work with an extraordinary delicacy in the depiction of emotion. It is this delicacy that may finally convince us that we are indeed in the presence of that rarest of achievements in art, the reinvention of sublimity.’ For a performance of any of Wagner’s mature works, either we feel we are in the presence of sublimity or the whole thing is a frustrating waste of time, as almost all performances are.

At Longborough, which this year has revived its 2015 production of Tristan und Isolde, the combination of depth, grandeur and delicacy of emotion are, for once, successfully present, and the result is one of the most exalting experiences I have had in the opera house. What was intermittently present in 2015 is continuously and therefore cumulatively present this year. Many of the ingredients that were there two years ago are still there, above all the conducting of Anthony Negus, whose way with Tristan is less broad than his mentor Goodall’s, but otherwise very similar: this is Wagnerian bel canto, but with no feeling of miniaturisation. Negus searches for, and invariably finds, the warm unfolding melody throughout the work, and gets his singers and his superb orchestra to do the same.

The most important change of cast is the Isolde of Lee Bisset. Two years ago Rachel Nicholls was powerful and passionate, sometimes almost too loud, but Bisset has a greater regal presence, a richer tone, and integrates passages that can sound like mere declamation into the overall forward pressure of the drama. She and the Tristan of Peter Wedd make the most convincing couple I have ever seen in this work. Wedd is a handsome, athletic presence — at Tristan’s entry in Act Two momentarily a comically athletic one, in his eagerness, rushing past Isolde and vaulting over the all-purpose single item of furniture. For a long time now I’ve expected to see at best a Tristan who can keep going and not let his Isolde down, but Wedd at last fulfils Wagner’s design, which is to move the emphasis from Isolde (Act One), to the pair of lovers (Act Two) on to Tristan, who in Act Three carries out the most thorough and excruciating self-analysis and self-discovery of any character in opera, or indeed in drama altogether. Jon Vickers, as always sui generis, was so flabbergasting in Act Three that one waited through the first two acts to endure his sufferings with him. Wedd is up to all the demands of the role — and for once Act Two is uncut — so that we respond fully to the intensities of all three acts; if we have the stamina, that is. These two magnificent singing actors are fully supported by their servants. Only King Marke, as previously, is inadequate, though not to a disabling extent.

And Carmen Jakobi’s production, previously disfigured by a couple of dancers who unpredictably appeared and distracted, to put it mildly, one’s attention to the drama, is now excellent: the Act Two duet, which usually has the pair sitting on a park bench or standing facing the audience, here has them interacting throughout, so that the combination of the erotic in the music and their behaviour, and the metaphysical in what they are singing, works to devastating effect.

Michael Tanner | 24 June 2017

When Longborough mounted its first Tristan und Isolde in 2015 (which I didn’t see), a key component of Carmen Jakobi’s production were two dancers who ghosted the title roles. Wagner lovers and critics, it’s fair to say, were not impressed, and, given the obliterating force of this revival, I wonder how any director could have considered such a novelty. This time round, the dancing has been dumped.

Wagner’s operas are sitting ducks for modish interpretation, and Longborough has made a virtue out of the necessity of its theatre’s size and limited facilities – and, driven by the energies of Martin and Lizzie Graham, the Festival’s founders, Wagner has been central to its fortunes since 1998, with two – yes, two – ‘Ring’ cycles, this Tristan and a magnificent Tannhäuser under its belt, and The Flying Dutchman berthing next year. The other Longborough figure is Anthony Negus, who brings a compelling authority to Wagner – his conducting is in a league of its own.

Longborough Festival Opera – Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde Photograph: Matthew William-Ellis Kimie Nakano’s designs for Tristan have a Zen-like minimalism – things to sit and, importantly, to lie on, and a backcloth that suggests a ship’s sail in Act One but otherwise is a screen for some Rothko-like colour projections and a veil in front of things dimly perceived – and her elegant costumes refer vaguely to a Japanese medievalism. Ben Ormerod’s lighting is subtle and very beautiful.

By not getting in the way, the staging enhances the intensity between the lovers, and with Peter Wedd (who was in the original run) and Lee Bisset you see and hear something quite remarkable unfold, something you know the opera carries but which rarely erupts to such annihilating effect, and it’s not just because they both are easy on the eye. On first-night Wedd’s singing was heroic and tireless, and the final Act must count as this already-superb Wagner-tenor’s finest achievement, on top of which he delivers Tristan’s madness with a truly distressing realism. Bisset’s soprano had the penetration, lyricism, range and volume to encompass Isolde’s imperious will and extreme vulnerability in Act One and, with Wedd of course, a sensationally erotic love-duet in the next one; they practically devoured each other, matched by singing of sublime tenderness and volcanic passion.

Wedd and Bisset are inside their roles and the text to a rare degree, and Jakobi’s intelligent, detailed direction stands up to unsparing scrutiny, miraculously sustained over the time-spans involved. During the Prelude there was a bit of mime in which the ‘Liebestod’ fixation is established decisively, and Wedd and Bisset go on to carry all the philosophical and psychological weight, all the stuff of surrendering ego, that the work has accrued, so that, for the audience, it positively seethes with those hair-raising moments of recognition and identification.

Longborough Festival Opera – Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde Photograph: Matthew William-Ellis The relationship between Isolde and her lady-in-waiting Brangäne is drawn with great sympathy and Harriet Williams soared serenely in her watch-tower music. Tristan and Kurwenal is not so great a twosome, but Stuart Pendred, bumptious in Act One, comes into his own strongly and touchingly in Act Three. Geoffrey Moses is a solidly sung, stolidly acted King Mark, and Sam Furness’s Sailor and Shepherd are both highly poetic.

If you need another reason to try and catch one or all of the remaining performances (June 10, 12 & 14) it would be Negus’s conducting, which draws incomparable insight and beauty from the orchestra. His sense of pace, and his willingness not to get in the way of or exaggerate the expressiveness are reasons to be thankful, but the thing I shall remember is the way he gears the music’s inexorable pull between real time and the timelessness that envelops the lovers. The moment near the start in Act Three, after Kurwenal has been busying himself with the wounded Tristan, when the latter returns to his Night music, a shadow crept over the sound, making you realise once again how much is going on in this score and how you’ll never get to the bottom of it.

Peter Reed | June 08, 2017

Tristan und Isolde is far more emotion than action driven, and this may explain why the simplicity of Carmen Jakobi’s staging for Longborough Festival Opera (first seen in 2015) actually aids its effectiveness. Although the stage may initially seem to contain little more than a few blocks, the approach allows all of the drama to be generated by the performers themselves, thus ensuring it arises naturally out of both the characters’ emotions and the music.

The result would be less effective if the soloists failed to convey the characters’ feelings so astutely, but Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset prove particularly effective in the title roles. As a result, in Act I we pick up on many details and sub-texts that might have not come to the fore in a more fussy staging. Bisset, through her immensely subtle and nuanced acting, proves just how strong and intelligent a person Isolde is, and consequently just how degrading it is for her to be made a virtual prisoner. It is also possible to see, however, that as she vents her frustration why she might simply be viewed by the sailors as the ‘wild Irish maid’.

Wedd, on the other hand, feels a far stiffer character at this point as he is ridden with guilt and hardly able to look Isolde in the eye. However, in this production it becomes easy to see how much shallower the two servants, Kurwenal and Brangäne, are than the main protagonists, even if both are immensely loyal and thus noble on their own terms. As Tristan in his shame fumbles for words to explain why he cannot see Isolde, Kurwenal simply delivers the ‘traditional’ line that Tristan is a hero who should not be ordered to do anything by Isolde. As Isolde laments her lot Brangäne replies that the fact she is to marry a King who has such a hero as his servant should make her happy.

As we see Isolde persuade Tristan to drink atonement, we become acutely aware of how he suddenly has to break off this encounter to give orders over steering the ship into port, highlighting the conflict between his public responsibilities and his private love and sense of duty towards Isolde. At the end of the act Bisset’s face as she tries to hide the joy she feels in front of the crowd, while really wanting to shout of her love to the world, is nigh on perfect.

A backdrop changes colour throughout the evening according to the mood. Silhouetted figures can appear behind it and sometimes it rises to reveal characters or a different realm. For example, in Act I when Brangäne goes from Isolde’s to Tristan’s quarters on the ship it rises partially to reveal Tristan and Kurwenal. For one of the sailors’ cries the crew appear as shadows behind the backdrop as if emphasising how society is closing in menacingly on Isolde.

Act II, which does not feature the dancers who appeared in 2015, is staged very effectively as the gestures of the two main protagonists keep the emotions flowing, with their plentiful, but sensitive, physical contact being tempered by moments when they stand apart. It is a shame, however, that Brangäne sings ‘Einsam wachend in der Nacht’ from offstage, when she could easily have been placed in the balcony just to the right of it, as it rather destroys her ability to communicate the piece to the audience. In addition, because her warning acts as a counterpoint to Tristan and Isolde’s own words it needs to be the focus or our attention rather the ‘background music’ to Tristan and Isolde’s increasingly amorous actions. However, the manner in which the impending resolution of the chord is interrupted is good as within a second the backdrop has risen to reveal Marke, Melot and others, thus showing how suddenly and completely night has become day.

As well as proving the most engaging and subtle of actors, Lee Bisset is vocally brilliant, with a soprano that can display sensitivity, restraint, strength and power while still always achieving a sense of overarching unity. Peter Wedd frequently conveys a strong sound that feels both forthright and yet nuanced. If he is not quite as consistently strong across the evening as a whole his performance in Act III when both his voice and overall persona convey total anguish and despair is immensely persuasive.

Stuart Pendred is excellent as Kurwenal, revealing both strength and a certain warmth to his sound. Harriet Williams displays a full and assertive mezzo-soprano as Brangäne, and Geoffrey Moses’ demeanour as the broken King Marke is highly convincing. Anthony Negus’ conducting is immensely accomplished as he elicits the right senses of texture and flow from the orchestra while also ensuring that all lines are delineated well and a strong balance across the orchestra maintained.

Sam Smith | 10 Jun 2017

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320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 509 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Carmen Jakobi (2015)