Jim Pritchard – Seen & Heard International

It was a day when you had to double-check your diary because it said it was September though it seemed more like midsummer as I drove through the post-harvest Essex countryside to Saffron Walden for Saffron Opera Group’s annual Wagner performance. I had only travelled about 40 miles and I wonder if anyone came further than somebody I met on an awayday from the Rhondda Valley who says he will be back again next year for Tannhäuser?

The audience which fills Saffron Hall year on year is a wonderful mix of grizzled Wagnerians and the first timers who more often than not have someone involved in the performance. It must have been some of those who I overheard discussing the story after the first act as ‘What a load of tosh’ and ‘It’s rather like The Archers’! Those were probably not the ones who had read – at that time at least – conductor Michael Thorne’s illuminating ‘Reflections on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde’ in the programme otherwise they might have had a different view of what they were hearing, or maybe not. Leaving the best for last Thorne – the driving force behind Wagner in Saffron Walden – quotes George Bernard Shaw who pithily summed the opera up as ‘an astonishing intense and faithful translation into music of emotions which accompany the union of a pair of lovers…a poem of destruction and death…to enjoy Tristan und Isolde it is only necessary to have had one serious love affair.’

Saffron Opera Group’s ‘continual improvement’ – I remarked about this in my Parsifal review last year (click here) – was evident once more and I really do not have to make too many critical adjustments even though my last Tristan und Isolde was only a month ago in Bayreuth (click here). Saffron Opera Group was established in late 2013 with the raison d’être ‘to give concert performances of complete operas and music dramas in Saffron Hall at affordable prices. Saffron Hall has world class acoustics and the ability to accommodate the largest orchestras. This allows us to do justice to the composers’ original scorings in a way only the largest international opera houses can manage. We cast soloists with existing national and international reputations together with promising young artists. They, and the Saffron Opera Group Orchestra, have established a growing reputation for high quality.’

They have not only succeeded with the Ring (during 2016 and 2017), but they began – almost unimaginably – with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 2014 and last year it was that Parsifal. Having myself mostly failed in attempts to put on performances of Wagner operas in the past, the achievement of Paul Garland and Francis Lambert, and all involved with Saffron Opera Group, to raise the £30,000 and more needed for this and every concert performance should not be underestimated.

My one major issue – that I have dwelt on before – is a lack of stage direction and any significant interaction between singers throughout these SOG presentations. Everyone sings from their scores and I can appreciate there is an issue with Thorne cueing them in. As a result they may need to be in direct eyeline with him, but I cannot understand why the great Act II love duet (‘O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe’) was sung with Isolde on one side of the platform and Tristan in the distance on the other side. As another example there was no real reason why Kurwenal and Tristan could not be there at the start of Act III and not noisily enter late during the scene setting prelude. However, the valiant small men’s chorus did try and enter the spirit of things and waved enthusiastically to hail an imaginary King Marke at the end of Act I, though this was rather odd in the context of the rest of this concert performance.

I make no apologies for repeating last year’s praise for the Saffron Opera Group Orchestra who again – overall – played extraordinarily well and were as virtuosic in Tristan und Isolde’s all-engulfing final moments as they were during the Prelude to Act I. Orchestras – whatever their status – are rarely faultless and the occasional musical blip can be glossed over. Again, as I have remarked before, the entire ensemble showed commendable dedication to the task and there was an impressively warm sheen to the strings and the woodwind had refinement and eloquence. For the most part the brass was noble and rich; however, once more, the horns were often too prominent – at least from where I was sitting on their side of the hall – and this is something that still needs to be addressed. Indeed, the overall sound was often relentlessly loud occasionally having the effect of drowning out the singers. It was not without good reason that the Bayreuth Festspielhaus has a cowl over the orchestra pit as Wagner always wanted his singers to be heard.

Michael Thorne’s preparation is always exemplary and he gets a wonderful response from his musicians. There is an inflexibility to his beat that seems to begin in his elbows and extend to the tip of his baton. Probably in support of his singers there was a Reginald Goodall-like broadness to this Tristan und Isolde, yet Thorne had total command of pacing and expression and the performance rarely seemed slow as such. The inexorability Thorne brought to building up tension was as exciting as it was engrossing. On the minus side Thorne obviously condoned the not-so-now ‘traditional’ cut in Act II which possibly was a blessing to some audience members if not, as well, to his leading singers. It had the effect of making the second interval longer than the act that preceded it!

The standout performance came from Saffron Opera Group’s Wagner stalwart Elaine McKrill. Her Isolde was a fully-fledged assumption; imperious and enraged in Act I; intense and anxious while awaiting Tristan’s arrival in Act II; and then very feminine once he did turn up. The transfiguration of her ‘Liebestod’ was memorably delivered. That McKrill has sung Isolde in staged performances was apparent in all she did and – amongst her plethora of other fine evenings – this was the best I have heard her sing.

Jonathan Stoughton was, I assume, singing Tristan for the first time and his relative command of what is considered to be a killer role was mightily impressive. He has a formidable technique at his disposal, great reserves of stamina, and Italianate lyricism. Naturally this Tristan is a work in progress and at the moment he brings little facial expression to any role he sings. Nevertheless, Stoughton showed he understood the role and he aided McKrill in bringing a ravishing dream-like quality to the Act II Liebesnacht love duet. Stoughton’s reply to King Marke at the end of Act II was heartrending and he brought an inner conviction to his Act III ravings that were sung in plangent tones.

Victoria Simmonds’s concerned Brangäne was the perfect foil to McKrill’s headstrong Isolde and she used both text and line to portray all her character’s variety of feelings. Richard Wiegold’s cavernous bass voice brought a regal grandeur to King Marke’s pronouncements that you do not often hear these days and – for someone so obviously in command – this made Marke’s emotional collapse towards the end of his long melancholic second act monologue even more moving. Nicholas Folwell is always a reliable singer but his Kurwenal was more cunning Alberich than loyal old retainer. Stuart Pendred as Melot was striking in his malevolence and whilst Ted Black’s biography says he is ‘a keen interpreter of an art song’ this approach wasn’t what the Young Sailor’s plaintive opening song needed. Completing a strong line-up of singers there were solid performances from Ben Thapa (Shepherd) and Paul Goodwin-Groen (Steersman).

Jim Pritchard