There’s no escaping the fact that Tristan und Isolde is a static opera: things happen very slowly (though each act ends very quickly), the characters are endlessly articulate about their own dilemmas and the central love scene is a Schopenhauerian discourse on the impossibility of achieving love in mortal life. For what is nominally a passionate love story, Wagner’s text is extremely cerebral – and too many directors have taken this as their cue to deliver chilly high concept productions in which the lovers seem under the thrall of nothing more troubling than an intellectual fascination with each other.  

Stuart Pendred (Kurwenal) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Stuart Pendred (Kurwenal)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

So it was refreshing when Peter Wedd’s Tristan and Lee Bisset’s Isolde spent most of Act 2 in a carnal embrace, only breaking off from each other when it was necessary to sing. This was a production which emphasised the totality of the lovers’ passion, physical as much as mental, Brangane’s “truth drug” having revealed the reality of their feelings. In other words, a flesh and blood Tristan, powerfullly acted and sung by principals who made up in conviction for what they occasionally lacked in vocal glamour.  

First among equals was Lee Bisset, a natural Wagnerian who impressed as Sieglinde in Opera North's Ring project, and who here delivered an Isolde that was more than the equal of any you will find on the international stage today. Other singers might have more beautiful voices, but beauty in Wagner comes a poor third to intelligence and emotional engagement with the role. This was a performance with a through line: the icy, passive-aggressive princess of Act 1 was a very different proposition to the woman who sang the “Liebestod” at the finale, and Bisset had the measure of this trajectory, offering reflective truth rather than generalised emotion at every turn.  

Lee Bisset (Isolde) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Lee Bisset (Isolde)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Peter Wedd’s Tristan was equally impressive, building on his fine Lohengrin for WNO some years back. This Tristan was a relatively youthful figure with a baritonal heft that at times recalled the young Peter Hofmann. Wedd’s acting has an appealing stillness, particularly in his confrontation with Isolde in Act 1, and he was fully equal to the challenge of the Act 3 delirium – a hurdle at which many previous Tristans have fallen – making us idenitfy with the character’s agony (“I yearn to die, yet yearning makes me live...”). 

Elsewhere, Harriet Williams was a fine Brangäne and Stuart Pendred an appropriately stalwart Kurwenal, while Geoffrey Moses’ almost spectrally thin King Marke was appropriately sympathetic. Stephen Rooke impressed in the brief but vital role of Melot. 

Geoffrey Moses (King Marke) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Geoffrey Moses (King Marke)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

There seemed to be a whiff of post-war Bayreuth in both Carmen Jakobi’s production and Kimie Nakano’s designs. The action taking place around a single significant piece of set (the barque in Act 1, Tristan’s rock in Act 3) and the careful placement of items (the wall-torch in Act 2) riveted the eye. Jakobi had clearly encouraged her cast to dwell upon their feelings and motivations and we were given some stage pictures that will live long in the memory, including Isolde’s sensuous anticipation of Tristan in Act 2 and Tristan’s realistic death in Act 3, for example. Ben Ormerod’s lighting design – all mottled hues and slow fades – served Jakobi and Nakano’s conception well.  

In the pit, Anthony Negus presided over a probing but never eccentric reading of the score that made a virtue of the intimate confines of the Longborough auditorium. A disciple of the late Reginal Goodall, Negus brought much of his mentor’s scholarly attention to detail to the performance but never sacrificed forward momentum to linger over detail. The Longborough Festival Orchestra followed him unerringly throughout.  

A final word for the pleasure of being able to enjoy an opera such as this in such a splendidly intimate setting. This Tristan – a revival of a production premiered in 2015 – gets the 2017 Festival off to a cracking start.