Longborough Festival Opera is staging Tristan und Isolde – and it’s testimony to the triumph of Longborough’s 2013 Ring cycle that no-one now seems surprised. That shouldn’t detract from what is, on almost every level, a stupendous achievement.
At its centre are the performances of Peter Wedd as Tristan and Rachel Nicholls as Isolde. Nicholls’s was an Isolde of fierce inner strength, barely contained, then released first into rage and then passion. She sang with radiant, swelling richness from beginning to end, unleashing a terrifying concentrated power in Act One, and soaring luminously above the orchestra in the final Liebestod.
Wedd’s Tristan travelled an even more terrible journey; from poised, menacing aloofness in Act One to an appallingly raw and real depiction of Tristan’s Act Three anguish. Here his voice, which had matched Nicholls’s for warmth throughout, revealed a blacker, rougher edge; of a piece with his near-unbearable characterisation.
Catherine Carby was a dark-voiced, passionate Brangäne; Stuart Pendred a suave, honey-tongued Kurwenal and Frode Olsen, tall and eerily pale of voice, an otherworldly King Marke. Anthony Negus conducted with a masterly sense of both pace and colour, and the orchestra responded, if anything, even more gloriously than in the Ring; with brass playing in particular of great lyricism and subtlety.
Musically, then a superb Tristan und Isolde. Carmen Jakobi’s direction and Kimie Nakano’s designs (Wieland Wagner filtered through Japanese minimalism) did, for the most part, all that was required, and created some arresting images: figures silhouetted against the evening sky; the lovers, in red and blue, profiled against a black tree trunk.
But the addition of a pair of dancers and, disastrously, an on-stage bass clarinet solo in King Marke’s Act Two monologue, pulled the focus from some of the drama’s supreme moments - as if Jakobi was unable to bear the intensity of Wagner’s vision. Frustrating, when everyone else in the company embraced it so fearlessly.
By Christopher Morley
With such a demanding work performed in such frequent propinquity, it's wise to have a back-up cast, and they were showcased last Thursday, with Anthony Negus' wonderfully shapely, structured conducting an ever-present cushion.
Neal Cooper eased himself wisely into the demands of his Tristan role, sometimes a little tentative in the great Act Two love-duet (dancers Katie Lusby and Mbulelo Ndabeni so erotically eloquent here), but magnificent in his huge Act Three crazed death-scene.
And Lee Bisset, her voice projected as strongly as an acoustic chamber, brought wonderful facial expressions to an immensely touching performance.
Her Liebestod was radiant, otherworldly, and built to a heartbreaking climax before her gently understated death alongside Tristan, her soulmate for all eternity.