Opera: Tristan Und Isolde/ Pelléas et Mélisande

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, June 24, 2017 | Go to article overview

Opera: Tristan Und Isolde/ Pelléas et Mélisande


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


In an essay called 'Wagner's fluids', Susan Sontag concludes, 'The depth and grandeur of feeling of which Wagner is capable is combined in his greatest work with an extraordinary delicacy in the depiction of emotion. It is this delicacy that may finally convince us that we are indeed in the presence of that rarest of achievements in art, the reinvention of sublimity.' For a performance of any of Wagner's mature works, either we feel we are in the presence of sublimity or the whole thing is a frustrating waste of time, as almost all performances are.

At Longborough, which this year has revived its 2015 production of Tristan und Isolde, the combination of depth, grandeur and delicacy of emotion are, for once, successfully present, and the result is one of the most exalting experiences I have had in the opera house. What was intermittently present in 2015 is continuously and therefore cumulatively present this year. Many of the ingredients that were there two years ago are still there, above all the conducting of Anthony Negus, whose way with Tristan is less broad than his mentor Goodall's, but otherwise very similar: this is Wagnerian bel canto, but with no feeling of miniaturisation. Negus searches for, and invariably finds, the warm unfolding melody throughout the work, and gets his singers and his superb orchestra to do the same.

The most important change of cast is the Isolde of Lee Bisset. Two years ago Rachel Nicholls was powerful and passionate, sometimes almost too loud, but Bisset has a greater regal presence, a richer tone, and integrates passages that can sound like mere declamation into the overall forward pressure of the drama. She and the Tristan of Peter Wedd make the most convincing couple I have ever seen in this work. Wedd is a handsome, athletic presence -- at Tristan's entry in Act Two momentarily a comically athletic one, in his eagerness, rushing past Isolde and vaulting over the all-purpose single item of furniture. For a long time now I've expected to see at best a Tristan who can keep going and not let his Isolde down, but Wedd at last fulfils Wagner's design, which is to move the emphasis from Isolde (Act One), to the pair of lovers (Act Two) on to Tristan, who in Act Three carries out the most thorough and excruciating self-analysis and self-discovery of any character in opera, or indeed in drama altogether. Jon Vickers, as always sui generis, was so flabbergasting in Act Three that one waited through the first two acts to endure his sufferings with him. …

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