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.
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.
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.