Each year in September the Saffron Opera Group gives a performance in the magnificent Saffron Hall of a Wagner opera, with singers, some veteran and some on the way up, and an orchestra composed mainly of amateurs with a stiffening of professionals, under the baton of Michael Thorne, formerly Vice Chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, a physicist. It doesn’t sound very promising, but the results, on the two occasions I have been to, verge on the sensational.
This year it was Tristan und Isolde, in many ways the most taxing of all Wagner’s dramas, both for the
performers and for the audience. I was in the happy position of sitting in the front row, about a couple of yards from Isolde in Act I and from Tristan in Act III, so there was nothing between me and the music – I mention that because it may in some measure account for the overwhelming impact of the occasion, giving me the most intense, indeed shattering experience of the work which I have had for many years –
and the fact that it was a concert performance was also a great help. I don’t intend ever to go to another staged performance of any Wagner opera.
Of course there were imperfections and occasionally shaky ensemble, but the essential spirit of the work was omnipresent, and concentration never flagged. Unfortunately there was the traditional cut in the love duet, ten minutes of marvellous music excised – but that is almost standard practice. The two leads were superbly taken, by Elaine McKrill as an Isolde who in Act I captured the full range of her complex feelings towards Tristan, until with the potion they suddenly undergo their drastic simplification; and by the up and coming Jonathan Stoughton, Longborough’s next Siegfried, and already a mature and phenomenally expressive artist so tremendous that he actually coped with the insanely demanding Act III monologues and emerged heroically for what must have been a very welcome death. Kurwenal was the familiar Nicholas Folwell, a veteran from Goodall’s great days, and in better voice than ever.
If the other singers hadn’t been so good the Brangäne of Victoria Simmonds would have swept the board, she was simply ideal, with a voice as velvety as her gown. And Richard Wiegold captured the full range of Marke’s feelings, making his Act II monologue as moving as it should be but rarely is. The only let-down, strangely, was the Liebestod, taken almost twice as fast as it should be, a bizarre anti-climax for which, nonetheless, I was almost grateful. Perhaps that is the new custom, emanating from Bayreuth – but who would want to go to Bayreuth when they can go to Saffron Hall?