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Tristan und Isolde, Longborough Festival | reviews, news & interviews

Tristan und Isolde, Longborough Festival

Tristan und Isolde, Longborough Festival

Wagner benefits as usual from the intimacy of Longborough's converted barn theatre

Isolde's 'Liebestod': the rapture, intensity, and inevitable doomMatthew Williams-Ellis

The Longborough Festival was started, essentially, to perform Wagner, and Wagner is still what it does best. This revival of Carmen Jakobi’s production of Tristan und Isolde is the strongest argument imaginable for small-theatre Wagner. For once the voices can make themselves heard without bellowing; the orchestra is clear and detailed, not just a distant fog; and – a rare treat in opera of any kind – acting with the face as well as the arms and torso becomes a factor in establishing character and relationships.

Isolde is a passionate young girl with a manipulative streak. But what Wagnerian soprano ever troubles to convey such mundane intricacies? At Longborough Lee Bissett does so, and with enormous intelligence and conviction. Not only does she sing with power and control, but from the start she creates, through bodily gesture and mobile facial expression, a vivid image of a young woman who is finding it hard to decide whether she hates or is in love with the man who is escorting her to marry the King of Cornwall. And once she has made up her mind, she conveys equally well the rapture and intensity, and the inevitable doom, of the love in question.

Tristan und Isolde, Longborough FestivalPeter Wedd (pictured right) is likewise more volatile from the start than the usual impassive, courteous delegate (his initial “Was ist? Isolde?” had one almost jumping out of one’s seat). His is a Tristan palpably on the verge of a forbidden love, and petrified of the fact. Out of this portrait there develops a nearly unbearable intensity in the subsequent acts, an intensity of a kind perhaps only really achievable in an intimate theatre. The second act love duet is almost embarrassing in its proximity, as if one were eavesdropping on something too personal for public display. And Wedd’s third act delirium, magnificently sung, has an immediacy I’ve rarely experienced in this often wearisome monologue.

The revival is well worth seeing, if you can cadge a ticket, just for this duo: marvellous character drama as well as great singing. But the cast as a whole has few weaknesses. Harriet Williams is a beautiful, touching Brangaene, a perfect foil to Bissett’s vengeful Isolde of the first act, and lovely offstage from her tower in the love duet; Stuart Pendred repeats his sturdy Kurwenal from the original production. Only Geoffrey Moses’s King Mark disappoints, too elderly-looking even for this aging widower, and inclined to hang below the note. Stephen Rooke (Melot), Sam Furness (Shepherd), and Adam Green (Helmsman) are all excellent.

Anthony Negus goes from strength to strength in his mastery of the sweep and scale of Wagner’s discourse, but I’ve heard more reliable playing from this orchestra. There were tentative moments in the prelude, and the hunting horns in Act 2 were maybe a shade too realistically alfresco. But these are teething troubles. Jakobi has mercifully got rid of the dancing doppelgangers and the onstage bass clarinettist of the original production, though I could do without Wedd’s vision of Isolde (new, I think) in the monologue, which weakens the effect of her actual entrance before the Liebestod. Kimie Nakano’s set designs, simple but atmospheric, and exquisitely lit by Ben Ormerod, are a joy as before.

A vivid image of a young woman who can't decide whether she hates or is in love


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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