I have not had many opera experiences in my lifetime that I could describe with a clear conscience as formative: shows that were memorable and, at the same time, shaped my peculiar sensitivity to sound and to the contexts surrounding the music. My most recent such illumination, after a long break, was the Longborough Tristan und Isolde, a production that shook me to such a degree that for the next year, I returned to it again and again – in essays, columns and reviews from completely different stagings. A year later at a dress rehearsal of Tannhäuser, I was confirmed in my conviction that Anthony Negus is one of today’s most distinguished interpreters of Wagner’s œuvre. The news that he was planning to open the new season with a revival of Tristan put me in a huge quandary. I felt like a soul who had gone through the Last Judgment, ended up in heaven, and then found out that something had gone wrong and it would be necessary to repeat the Judgment. And what if there would be no salvation this time?
But there was. It happened not only in the theatrical plane – the only one about which I had mild reservations – but also in the musical one, this time so close to musical perfection that at moments I really had the impression of contact with the unknowable ‘thing-in-itself’. Stage director Carmen Jakobi decided to dispense with the pair of dancers – ‘Jungian’ doubles of Tristan and Isolde – who had previous introduced unnecessary confusion into the opera’s only superficially static narrative. The singers were left alone on a nearly empty stage, in a space masterfully painted with light, face to face with the audience gathered in the little opera house. What began was true theater – faithful to the score, based on the word, intricately built around the relationships between the characters. Jakobi did not stop at just removing the dancing ‘shadows’. She shifted certain accents, all the more emphatically underlining the Wagnerian masterpiece’s departures from its literary prototype. With the performers, she worked through every move, every gesture and every exchange of glances, at moments creating such a suggestive atmosphere of intimacy that we didn’t know where to lay our eyes – we, accustomed to viewing sex, nudity and all manner of perversions in opera, but so pitifully helpless in confrontation with the view of pure, though staggeringly intense emotion between two people. Three scenes from the production should go down in operatic history. First of all, the finale of Act I, in which the lovers torn out of their ecstatic exhilaration behave as if they are still in a trance, not grasping and not wanting to grasp what is going on around them – the short exchange of lines between the reeling Tristan and the stupefied Kurwenal (‘Wer naht?’, ‘Der König!’, ‘Welcher König?’) was literally breathtaking. Secondly, the duet from Act II, the exquisite, eroticism-laden love scene of which Grotowski’s best actors would not be ashamed. Thirdly, Tristan’s great monologue in Act III, ending with his death in Isolde’s arms: a realistic and shocking image of agony the likes I have never seen either in the theater, or even in the cinema. And never want to see in real life.
Act I. Peter Wedd (Tristan) and Lee Bisset (Isolde). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.
The most beautiful thing was the spirit of collaboration that hovered over the whole production. Jakobi’s directing melded with the musical work like those two yew trees with the church portal in nearby Stow-on-the-Wold. In the singers’ acting, I recognized gestures observed during other shows featuring them – this time, however, chiseled out with truly Shakespearean care. The staging does not diverge even one iota from the conductor’s concept. And that concept, already brilliant two years ago, has undergone further evolution. At the time, I compared Negus’ interpretation with the legendary perspectives of Karl Böhm, noticing the blistering tempi, but above all the exuberant pulse of the performance, making the audience realize that torment and longing are immanently linked to the score and there is no need to additionally slow it down. This time, I had the impression that Negus had gone even further, becoming part the forgotten or disregarded performance tradition of the 1930s. Initially, I thought of Reiner; then I went back even further in my thoughts, evoking the memory of the legendary recording of the prelude to Act I in the rendition of the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Richard Strauss. In Negus’ prelude, we heard the same devastated, carved-up waltz; the textures were equally light and bright; the wonderful portamenti of the ’celli revived the memory of times long past and a sensitivity to sound that has since that time been lost. In Act II, the ‘hunting music’ was enchantingly laden with the subtle power of natural horns; in Act III, the Shepherd’s song was accompanied by the nasal, frightfully sad tone of the tárogató. In this production, the orchestra did not accompany the singers – it created a separate quality, almost sublime in the prelude to the final act, where the violins in the initial Todesschmerz motif literally ‘rebound’ with a tritone off of the F in the ’cello chord, and the desolation motif gliding upward in thirds created such an overwhelming impression of boundless emptiness that I had shivers running up and down my spine. The mood was complemented by the stray thrush in the garden who decided to echo the English horn melody from the prologue to Scene 1.
Act II. Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.
In this year’s cast, there were basically no weak points, which inspires all the greater admiration that the show was put on four times, every two days, featuring the same singers. Wonderful roles were created by Stuart Pendred (Kurwenal), known from the previous staging, gifted with a baritone of quite peculiar timbre, nonetheless superbly carried and technically flawless; and by Harriet Williams, a warm and velvety Brangäne, perhaps even better than Catherine Carby, whom I praised to the skies two years ago. A fantastic debut in the roles of the Young Sailor and the Shepherd was turned in by Sam Furness, whom I have had the opportunity to admire three times in recent seasons: as Števa in the Glasgow Jenůfa, the Novice in the Madrid Billy Budd and Joaquino in a concert performance of Fidelio in Paris (in a few days, he will be portraying this character in a new staging of Beethoven’s opera at the Longborough Festival Opera). Some critics complained of tiredness in the voice of Geoffrey Moses, in my opinion wrongly: his King Marke fully convinced me to the concept of the tragic ruler faced with a betrayal exceeding all bounds of imagination. I am certain that this was a conscious choice on Negus’ part, supported furthermore by the experienced bass’s enormous vocal culture and unquestionably beautiful instrument.
Act III. Stuart Pendred (Kurwenal), Peter Wedd and Sam Furness (Shepherd). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.
I fear that I will run short of compliments for the two title characters. Lee Bisset, who debuted in the second cast in 2015, turned out to be the Isolde of my dreams, finished in every inch, felt to the very depths. This is one of those singers who rivet one’s attention from their first entrance onstage, engage the listener not only with perfect mastery of their part, but also with an accurate feel for the words and fantastic acting. Bisset pulled off something that Rachel Nicholls had previously been unable to manage – to show Isolde as an equal partner to Tristan, a strong woman aware from the outset of her feelings, with which she initially fights as fiercely as she later yields to them. Her dark, expressive, strikingly powerful soprano sparkles with every hue of emotion: it sounded one way in the fiery, furious duet with Brangäne, another way in ecstatic union with Tristan, for whom she had longed for years. The latter was again portrayed by Peter Wedd, who created probably the most captivating role in his career thus far. He went straight into his role with a secure and open voice, carrying over the dense textures with a sonorous, trumpet-like squillo. In Act I, Scene 5, both of them were stupendous: one would look in vain for a ‘Du mir einzig bewusst, höchste Liebeslust!’ sung like that in the archives of contemporary opera houses. In Act II, Wedd began to play with timbre: after the phenomenal duet, he brought out the famous phrase ‘O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen’ in a manner that I had been awaiting for years: searingly lyrical, yet at the same time masculine, gradually sinking into a darker and darker abyss. In ‘Dem Land, das Tristan meint, der Sonne Licht nicht scheint’, he sang with a voice so dark, it was as if every sun in the galaxy had been snuffed out. In the Act III monologue, he went through every tone of despair, hope and torment: I don’t know if there is another tenor in the world who would be able to with such a beautiful voice and yet so precisely reflect the delirium of Tristan, at a certain moment thrashing about in an extremely disturbing 5/4 metre – used in mad scenes by, among others, Händel. When the knight had finally died in Isolde’s arms, the Verklärung began – the love transfiguration of Isolde, by Wagner fans erroneously referred to as the Liebestod. Both Negus and Jakobi pointed out this false reading, for which Liszt had been to blame. Lee Bisset sang her last monologue in an ecstasy bringing to mind associations with Bernini’s famous sculpture, looking with awe at Tristan’s corpse, frozen like a wax figure. And then, in the orchestra, miracles again began to happen. During the ‘Mild und leise’ monologue, the ‘voice’ of the dead Tristan circulated beneath the skin, like the song of the dumbstruck Rusalka from Dvořák’s opera almost half a century later. And in the penultimate measure, Isolde’s heart stopped: just before the final B major chord, the oboes are left alone for a moment, holding out a long, piercing D-sharp – like the flat line on the monitor announcing the irreversible stoppage of circulation.
Again I ended up in heaven. Only what am I going to do there without such a Tristan?
Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski