A note on the recent Tristan and Isolde at Longborough by Ted Marr

Posted on 26, Jun, 2015 in Uncategorized

Tristan und Isolde, Longborough Festival Opera, 18 & 20 June 2015

I saw this production twice – on 18 June with what was in effect the reserve cast (they performed only once), and again on 20 June with the principal cast (they performed three of the four nights). These are the comments that I posted to Facebook after each, only slightly edited for this note.

18 June 2015

Some of us (like me) think that Tristan und Isolde is Wagner’s best opera. Some people (also including me) think that Tristan und Isolde is the best opera ever written by anyone. Putting opinions like that aside in favour of some more factual issues, most opera enthusiasts will agree that the two roles of Tristan and Isolde are among the most difficult in the entire operatic canon, and that the score represents a major challenge to even the best orchestras and conductors. Given that background, seeing a new production of this work is potentially a musical treat, and possibly a disaster, and while we really hope that it will be great, we know that there are all sorts of reasons why it might not be. This production by Longborough Festival Opera was, as it turned out, a wonderful treat, and served only to reassure me thatTristan und Isolde is not only Wagner’s greatest work but also the greatest opera ever written. And all this at a house in the countryside that seats only a few more than 400 people, that has a fairly small stage and pit, and that is a private initiative which operates only for a short summer season each year and doesn’t (so far as I know) get any state arts funding. Even more astonishing was that on this first night we were seeing the second cast. There are only four performances of this opera during this summer’s festival, of which three are performed by the principal cast and this one by what might be described as the reserve cast. But they definitely didn’t seem like the reserve cast. Scottish soprano Lee Bisset was as good an Isolde as I have seen, showing us rich and unflagging vocals, a commanding stage presence, sensitive expression and acting, and (above all!) seemingly endless stamina. This is a role that is beyond the reach of most sopranos, and I’m sure that if any casting professionals saw her tonight, she will be in demand to perform it all over the world. English tenor Neal Cooper, while not outstanding to quite that degree (every now and then he seemed to slightly run out of gas) was as good a Tristan as many that I’ve seen, and certainly did not disappoint. Harriet Williams was a splendid Brangäne (I expect on the basis of what I saw that she will make this demanding secondary role a staple) and all the others in the cast were better than just satisfactory. The production was very good – perfect for this house but good enough for any house – with simple abstract sets that did not add anything particular but also didn’t distract, and obviously thoughtful and sensible stage direction that enhanced the imperatives of the music and the text. The only production element that I had doubts about (and it is something I usually hate) was the inclusion of a pair of dancers, I guess intended to represent the idsinherent in Tristan and in Isolde (or whatever) in this psychologically complex musical drama. They did not appear very often, and when they did they were rather pretty and they moved very beautifully. In the first act I rather liked them, in the second they irritated me, and in the third I found myself ignoring them. On balance I guess they were probably OK, but also, on balance, I think that the show would have been at least as good, and probably a little better, without them. In any event, putting minor cavils aside where they assuredly should be, this production of Tristan und Isolde was a triumph. I’m so very thrilled that Espen & I made the effort to be there for it.

PS: Having sung Lee Bisset‘s praises for her sensational performance in the punishingly demanding role of Isolde at Longborough Festival Opera, I was astonished to learn the next day that she is eight months pregnant. I stand in awe not only of her talent but also her strength and stamina.

20 June 2015

I’m so pleased that I was able (having got the last available seat in the house when I booked) to go back and see this production again, this time with the main cast. I was again very taken with Carmen Jakobi’s production, and enjoyed even more than the first time Kimie Nakano’s simple, elegant, abstract sets and the intelligent use of lighting and curtains to transition between scenes. Conductor Anthony Negus again led the orchestra stylishly and sensitively through what is one of the longest and most difficult opera scores: to achieve such a high degree of accuracy, emotion, and texture with a much smaller orchestra than usual (even in a much smaller house) is itself a major achievement. As to the cast, they were, again, all very good. If I had to call it, I would say that Peter Wedd was a slightly better Tristan than Neal Cooper had been two days before, if only because he did not seem prone to the (very) occasional lapses in power that Cooper seemed to experience. On the other hand Catherine Carby’s Brangäne, while very good indeed, was marginally less convincing, I thought, than that of Harriet Williams on Thursday. My biggest surprise was that somehow, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, Rachel Nicholls (who I loved in the Longborough Ring Cycle 2 years ago, and who was on any view excellent as Isolde) did not wow me quite as much as Lee Bisset had on Thursday. Was she perhaps a tiny bit shouty a couple of times in the way that Lee Bisset had not been? Did her performance not have quite the easy fluidity in the mixing of vocals and action? This is not to say that her performance was anything short of wonderful and exceptional, but this is one of the rare occasions when one sees, back-to-back, different casts in the same production, and comparisons are inevitable. That, of course, necessarily includes an overall comparison, and it turns out that, contrary to my expectations, I enjoyed the “2nd” cast on Thursday a little more (but only by a whisker!) than the “main” cast on Saturday.