This is quite simply one of the most engaging, stunningly apt and totally gripping productions of Tristan und Isolde, the work that Wagner called not an opera but an “action in three acts”. Often to the uninitiated and in less sensitive productions this work can come across as static and long. On this occasion the production and performance were so captivating that I found the evening perfect in its timing. Usually one praises the orchestra and conducting first in writing about Tristan und Isolde and talks about the chromaticism and music that was so innovative for its day and that is still remarkably modernistic. This time one has to begin with the figures of Tristan and Isolde themselves. They are so well cast , visually, vocally and dramatically, and so perfectly involved with the full presentation of the plight of their characters that not for a moment does concentration break. Isolde’s anger and frustration, her longing for death, her awakening to a full eroticism; Tristan’s pain, his passion, and the arc of the story through their emotional and psychological journey together are all presented with total sympathy, understanding and dramatic control.
The voices of Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset are a real pleasure to listen to and the Love Duet in the second act was a seamless highlight of the evening, done with total dramatic and musical conviction. Both singers are superb and tireless in these very demanding roles and convey the blissful attraction and sexuality of their characters with total conviction. They also convey brilliant the various kinds of torment that they experience.
But all the cast are brilliantly directed. Geoffrey Moses conveys the real confusion, shock and hurt of King Marke when he believes he has been betrayed by his nephew, Tristan; so that for once his long monologue that follows the Love Duet is not a dry anti-climax but a further exploration of the psychological and spiritual life of a character. Peter Wedd transfixed the audience throughout the evening; Harriet Williams was mellifluous and moving as Brangane, making an especially fine contribution during the Love Duet. Lee Bisset was at the very centre of this experience of Wagner’s great tragic drama, opening the evening with her riveting outcries and closing it with a perfectly sung, shaped and acted Liebestod. I was never in any doubt about why Tristan was so attracted to her. She is definitely in command of this role in every way and conveys with great understanding every musical and dramatic nuance demanded of her. She and Wedd fully embodied the sensuality of the score and the complex psychology of the story. I also want to praise Sam Furness for his singing of the Sailor at the start of the opera and the Shepherd in Act Three. One can give nothing less than full praise also to Anthony Negus and the orchestra for the sheer gorgeousness of the sound they created and such a rich and subtle rendering of the score while fully supporting the action on the stage. The sets, the costumes and the lighting were completely in keeping with the interpretation by Carmen Jakobi of this story. The approach was wisely simple, stark and direct; and the impact was almost overwhelming.
I would certainly see this production again if I had the chance; and I now want to seek out Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset and hear them in other roles as well. I am delighted that I will get to hear Sam Furness again when he plays Jacquino in Fidelio at the Longborough Festival soon.
It felt like a real privilege to attend this Tristan und Isolde and it should go down in the history of opera production not only for its individual intelligence and emotional power, not only for its musicality, but also for achieving what Wagner wanted to create: a real coming together of all the elements of opera into a unified whole of great dramatic power. This really was opera as drama.