OPERA NEWS - Tristan und Isolde
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Tristan und Isolde

LONGBOROUGH
Longborough Festival Opera
6/16/16

Situated in a pleasant part of England in north Gloucestershire called the Cotswolds, the village of Longborough has been the site of one of the UK’s ever-burgeoning number of homegrown opera festivals since 1991. Starting out with operatic concerts presented in a theatre converted from a barn at the hilltop home of opera-fans Martin and Lizzie Graham, the festival followed up with full-length productions by visiting companies, and then began staging its own shows in 1998. From the first, Wagner was an essential part of the repertoire, with a scaled-down production of Das Rheingold (in an orchestral reduction by composer Jonathan Dove) presented that initial year, and an entire Ring on the same small scale gradually built up until it could be staged complete in 2002. 

Then the decision was taken to cut no more corners; and so a new, full-scale and uncut Ring was duly launched and developed, season by season, until it too could be finally presented complete in 2013. Meanwhile, the event has presented works from other traditions, and continues to do so: the 2015 program featured Rigoletto, Don Pasquale and Handel’s Xerxes — the latter cast from members of Longborough’s Young Artist program — though the recent season’s most ambitious constituent was undoubtedly the festival’s first-ever Tristan und Isolde (seen June 16). 

Over the course of its Wagnerian odyssey, Longborough has been able to benefit from the vast knowledge and experience of Anthony Negus, a protégé of the celebrated English Wagnerian Reginald Goodall and a long-term member of Welsh National Opera’s music staff. His conducting of Tristan displayed a comprehensive understanding of the score down to its finest details, as well as not only an ability to motivate the orchestra — Longborough has created its own, full-scale ensemble — but also to project the score dynamically yet with a convincing architectural overview; from this point of view, Longborough’s Tristan was an entire success.    

So it was, very largely, from the vocal side. Having created a hugely positive impression with his first Lohengrin for Welsh National Opera last year, British tenor Peter Wedd here offered his first Tristan. A tall and striking figure on stage, he has the voice to match, and though many would regard Lohengrin to Tristan as quite a jump, there was no point during the course of the long evening when Wedd felt unready for it. With a substantial and coloristically varied tone on offer, plus a keen attention to text, he cut a swathe through Wagner’s writing, confidently holding the audience’s attention in the crazily demanding mad scene of the third act; in addition, he proved himself an accomplished physical actor.

He was impressively partnered by the Isolde of Rachel Nicholls, though from a purely vocal point of view she gave a marginally less consistent performance of the mightily challenging role; still, her voice proved large enough and sufficiently well produced to ride the grand Wagnerian climaxes. (Longborough’s pit gives the whole acoustic a voice-friendly basis that was obviously intended to recreate, as far as possible, the ideal balance obtainable at Bayreuth.) Visually a short-haired, rather boyish Isolde, Nicholls has already achieved much in the role and clearly possesses even greater potential in it.

Catherine Carby’s concerned Brangäne went through a rough patch towards the end of Act I but rallied to give a good account of herself in the remainder of the opera. Norwegian Frode Olsen’s full-bodied bass provided him with an ideal vocal platform from which to launch his fully thought-through, sympathetically drawn King Marke, whose lengthy lamentation in the second act was a true highlight. Stuart Pendred was the blunt, manly Kurwenal and Ben Thapa an effective Melot. 

Where the evening suffered by comparison with other versions of the opera seen in the UK in recent years (including at country-house opera competitor Grange Park in 2011) was in its visual aspects. Partly limited by the lack of technical equipment available to the Longborough stage (something that will have to be tackled sooner or later), Kimie Nakano’s semi-abstract sets seemed little more than functional. The same applied to Carmen Jakobi’s production, whose chief problem was the presence of two dancers representing Tristan and Isolde on stage, often when they were already highly visible in the shape of a tenor and a soprano. Well executed though they were by their two exponents, Katie Lusby’s and Mbulelo Ndabeni’s interventions, choreographed by Didy Veldman, seemed in all other respects unnecessary. spacer

GEORGE HALL

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