Tristan und Isolde, Longborough Festival Opera, LFO, June 2017

Since this opened in 2015 celebrating sesqui-centenary of the opera, I have attended two other productions plus a terrific concert performance at Grange Park last summer, and one thing is clear. Less is more. While Bayreuth’s 2015 production abandoned their previous directorial absurdities the English National Opera went in the other direction with pretentious fussiness roundly rejected by many critics. To some extent a more sparing production may be a question of money, but it is also a matter of vision.

Act II, Brangäne and Isolde, all images GFO/ Matthew Williams-Ellis

Martin Graham, the director of Longborough, is very clear on this. Too many distractions are … well, a distraction. The fewer the better, and Carmen Jakobi’s spare but psychologically rich production is helped by Kimi Nakano’s uncluttered designs, lighting by Ben Ormerod’s that subtly changes, and interactions between performers that beautifully reflect the composer’s intentions. Anyone who goes to a superb Wagner performance such as this will find the music and staging reveals hitherto unseen depths, and it would be invidious of me to give more than a personal view, but in Act II the meeting of the lovers carried extraordinary power, and as they sink together into the world of night (O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe), Brangäne’s off-stage warning (Einsam wachend) formed a magical connection to the world of day, while the lighting created an otherworldly atmosphere. Such sorcery lives in the music of course, but Carmen Jakobi has skilfully realised it on stage, and her essay in the programme book is well worth reading.

Lovers in Act II

Of course we would be nowhere without the superb music direction of Anthony Negus, and the wonderful performances of the singers. Lee Bisset’s Isolde is remarkable, so beautifully expressive and vocally powerful. With Peter Wedd’s strongly sung Tristan this pair of lovers exhibited a natural passion in their desire for the realm of night, watched over by Stuart Pendred and Harriet Williams as ever-faithful and vocally secure companions Kurwenal and Brangäne. With bass depth from Geoffrey Moses as King Marke, Stephen Rooke as a handsomely plausible but duplicitous Melot, and Sam Furness as a musically adept shepherd in Act III, this was a super cast.

Tristan’s vision of Isolde on her way, watched by Kurwenal

Many in the audience may have preferred a longer silence to recover from such a stunning performance, and as last summer’s expensive and ludicrous ENO production fades from memory, it is a great relief to have Longborough’s excellent revival. For a fine staging of this extraordinary opera one need look no further, and the gods clearly approved because after a short, sharp downpour following Act II, a glorious rainbow appeared on the horizon.


Performances continue on June 10, 12 and 14 — for details click here.

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