REVIEW: Tristan und Isolde, Longborough Festival Opera

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Peter Wedd, Tristan, and Lee Bisset, Isolde, at Longborough Festival Opera. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

Preston Witts welcomes a glorious return…

ONCE again Longborough Festival Opera has scaled the dizzy heights and staged a performance of Tristan und Isolde that keeps this Cotswolds music venue firmly at the forefront of Wagner productions at home and abroad.

Under the baton of Anthony Negus, who is now well established as one of the great Wagner interpreters of his generation, Longborough returned to its 2015 production of this operatic version of the famous Celtic love story with a blazing intensity befitting the rawness of the emotions being unleashed.

Lee Bisset as Isolde was glorious. She is a powerful soprano who is well equipped to meet the enormous demands imposed by Wagner on his singers. In the intimate setting of Longborough she commanded the stage and the packed auditorium with a voice and dramatic poise that qualifies her as a Wagnerian of considerable stature.

She is, of course, no stranger to this opera. In 2015 she played the part of Isolde in one of the four performances at Longborough in June that year. In the three other 2015 performances the role was taken by Rachel Nicholls. This year Ms Bisset was Isolde on all four occasions and Tristan was performed by the tenor Peter Wedd, who played opposite Ms Nicholls two years ago.

The combination of Ms Bisset and Mr Wedd in the title roles was convincing in its portrayal of two lovers whose romantic entanglement breaches the trust of Tristan’s uncle, King Marke of Cornwall, to whom Isolde is betrothed.

The bass, Geoffrey Moses, in the role of King Marke, handled this betrayal with a kind of dignified repugnance, sombre and sonorous in his rebuke of his nephew. He, too, performed with considerable stage presence, appropriate to that of a monarch and leader of men.

Also on top form was the mezzo-soprano, Harriet Williams, playing the part of Isolde’s maid, Brangäne, This is yet another demanding role, and Ms Williams performed it with the same commanding grasp of Wagner’s exacting requirements as the other star performers in this opera.

One interesting departure from the 2015 production was the removal of the dancing sequence. Two years ago there was criticism of the fact that two dancers were introduced into the proceedings as a means of demonstrating Tristan and Isolde’s subconscious feelings for each other — indeed their actual night of love. But the dancing, good though it was, was regarded as a distraction for the audience, and perhaps even for the singers themselves.

The last of the four performances of Tristan und Isolde took place last night, Wednesday. Apart from the praise already given to Anthony Negus for his magnificent conducting of Wagner, tributes should also go to the orchestra that he so obviously inspired. The director, Carmen Jakobi, the designer, Kimie Nakano, and the lighting designer, Ben Ormerod, deserve plaudits as well — together with everyone else associated with this tremendous production.

Longborough is now preparing to put on Fidelio by Beethoven (five performances which started on Saturday, 24th June). This will be followed by Mozart’s The Magic Flute (six performances beginning on Thursday 13th July) and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (three performances at Longborough starting on Saturday, 29th July, and one at the Greenwood Theatre in London on Thursday, 4th August).