Don has never been to Bayreuth, As much as he is drawn, for obvious reasons, to the Holy of Holies of the Wagner world, the long historic shadow of Hitler standing at the window, saluting the adoring SS speckled audience below, means he’s in no great rush. One day.
Meantime, Don was off to the UK’s own country house Wagner fest, deep in the beautiful Cotswolds countryside; Longborough Festival Opera. For it was that most evocative of operas, Tristan and Isolde. A lone traveller, as Mrs Don was in Edinburgh with one of the Don Daughters, checking out the Uni.
Tristan and Isolde reaching out to each other in Don’s garden.
It was the first time Don had seen Tristan live. He was very tempted by the Anish Kapoor designed spectacular at ENO last year (Melton/Skelton) but felt his first Tristan should be in German. Good decision and worth the wait.
Longborough is delightful and pretty quaint. The house is, by Don Towers standards, a gargantuan mansion but say in comparison to Glyndebourne, it’s compact and in the nicest sense, slightly shabby chic. But one soon realises that intimacy and informality is part of the charm that keeps the Wagner Friends returning year after year. And Lizzie and Martin Graham have built a fine tradition of opera in the Cotswolds; far from simply Wagner but it looks like at least one Wagner production every summer for several years now. It can’t be easy putting on top class opera in a local setting and they are to be congratulated.
It was 8th June 2017. Opening night and an auspicious night. Storm clouds gathered throughout a day in which blinding sunshine alternated with driving rain, rainbows and all. It was also the night when the exit polls would point to a sea change in British politics from which, who knows when we shall recover; creating ructions every bit as dramatic as on-stage events. Blow wind, blow. That was for later. For now, the beautiful ladies and penguin clad gents ambled around the grounds, seemingly intoxicated by the sheer beauty and comfortable in the knowledge that whatever lay in the future, the next few hours would transfix and transcend; not to mention transfigure.
The auditorium is sufficiently intimate that opera glasses are otiose and from the middle of the stalls, Don enjoyed a view he hadn’t savoured at ROH for many a year.
The stage was sparse; bare in the first Act bar a bench (on a ship). In the second a small wall from which jutted a lit torch and in the third, Tristan’s rock. We didn’t need scenery; the real action takes place inside heads and in the tantalising erotic tension between Tristan and Isolde. Mood or occasional scene change was superbly achieved by the subtle lighting. Designer Kimie Nakano and Lighting Designer Ben Ormerod take the plaudits. The latter in fine Wieland Wagner tradition. And lighting of course is crucially important to this opera. “Das Licht!, Das Licht!” exclaims Tristan.
So, with the caveat that Don has two ears but no musical training and is generally idiotic, let’s get into it.
From the Tristan chord, the overture proceeded with confidence and a light touch, under the sure-footed guidance of Musical Director and Bayreuth veteran, Anthony Negus. Light touch and sure footed? Whatever. It sets the scene, anticipates ardour but equally warns of trouble ahead. Generally as intended, it unnerves.
The off stage sailor tells us our ship is heading east and all is well. Blow wind, blow. But Isolde (Lee Bisset) re-asserts our nagging concern. We are left in no doubt that despite her maid’s assurances, this feisty Irish princess will be not be dragged off anywhere she doesn’t want to be dragged. And England, the conquering enemy, is the worst place of all.
Don first encountered Lee as Sieglinde in Opera North’s 2016 Ring Cycle and was delighted to see she was reviving the Longborough Isolde from 2015. He had high expectations but she exceeded them. Bisset doesn’t just sing the part, she lives and dies the part. And in Don’s humble opinion, that’s the only way to play it. As well as singing with clarity and confidence, every gut wrenching emotion was etched on her face.
Don is most familiar with Waltraud Meier’s 2007 La Scala Isolde (Barenboim/Chereau) and considers (bless him) that Lee has potential to hold her own even in that exulted company, or at least have the great Waltraud in her sights. Both unbelievable performers.
Don is not as familiar with Peter Wedd but he too was excellent. One wondered if he would be a little overwhelmed by Bisset but no, he held his own and his psychological suffering was palpable in Acts 2 and 3.
Don’s previous (non-live) Tristans are the Meier/Storey performance mentioned above and also the fantastic Trelinski production with Nina Stemme/Stuart Skelton at the Met last year. That was amazing, though maybe a little over ambitious delving into Tristan’s parental neurosis as much as it did and whilst complex staging perhaps obscured, Don loved some of the visuals in that; for example the ship radar emphasised aspects of watching, waiting and longing.
But neither of those fine performances were as erotically charged as this. It defined this production and why not? The long pause in Act 2 as Brangäne warns of the approaching dawn needs to be filled and the lovers’ gentle caresses seemed natural and fitting.
Generally, Carmen Jakobi’s direction was spot on. It didn’t compel the audience to face up to some of the challenges in the Met production; by and large she played it pretty straight and I feel that’s the right move. There’s an abundance of complexity in the intrinsic material for even the demanding audience. From Jungian inner turmoil to Wagner’s unique twist on Schopenhauer (Sex denying the Will, rather than Sex affirming the Will), there’s more than enough to cope with, without getting into whether Tristan is a manic-depressive and Isolde, bi-polar. Love denied is dramatic enough. Throw in the suspicion, even seething resentment Isolde has for her would be lover and the dialogue in Act 2 makes increasing sense. “Doch” she persistently prods; stress testing his excuses for apparently seducing her for another. But ultimately the white heat of their love wins through. It cannot be constrained; at least not within this life.
King Marke (Geoffrey Moses) cut a spectral figure; his lovely bass filled the hall with sadness as he lamented not only the loss of his friend but also loss of friendship and loyalty. The supporting cast, supported admirably and one can tell from their impressive bios that we shall see and hear a lot more of them in the future.
So we come to the denouement. In the programme notes, Jakobi writes of the low chord marking Isolde’s realisation that Tristan’s life force is spent and she is alone. All she wanted was to be with him in life or death and both had long realised it could only be death. She then moves to the transfiguration scene and the famous liebestod, majestically delivered by Bisset. Jakobi I think hints that from that low chord, maybe Isolde’s spark has gone too and she is on some form of automotive function, a mere bodily husk, until she too physically expires. I like this idea. In this production, Isolde lovingly lays upon the dead Tristan as the orchestra plays out. I think I prefer Waltraud Meier’s La Scala collapse which plays into this same idea that the body continues briefly after the brain has died and the soul departed.
And we were done. After countless Blu-ray and CD experiences, Don had seen the real thing. Tristan and Isolde is raw; physically and emotionally and needs to be seen in the flesh. All the better close up and intimate and where better than at Longborough?
It was a magnificent production and an experience and journey never to be forgotten.
Though we weren’t done. Blow wind, blow. It certainly did. An election hurricane ripped through our political pre-conceived notions and turned them inside out. In other circumstances, maybe a good thing but for the present Brexit negotiations….well Don is safer sticking to West Ham and Wagner.
Post 30 completed. Don embarked on a journey a year or so back to discover from a standing start, what he could about Wagner. No musical training, simply curiosity. Yet here we are reviewing Tristan, of all things. Blimey! Its been fascinating and we look forward to continued meanderings down some road or other. Do join him.
If you have been, thanks for listening.