Tristan und Isolde (Edinburgh Players Opera Group, Portobello Town Hall, 29 September)
In case you were wondering what I'd been up to recently while I've been being lax about updating the blog, well, three weeks ago I was doing this. Regulars here will know that when it comes end of September it comes Wagner concert performance time, as it has done from time immemorial (OK, since September 2001). Edinburgh Players Opera Group is a bunch of amateurs in the best possible sense: we do it as a (considerable) labour of love. Over the years we've done two full Ring cycles, two Parsifals, and one each of Tristan and Meistersinger. 2013 saw (and heard) our second Tristan.
EPOG is the brainchild of Philip Taylor (who used to lead the orchestra but now sits quietly and watches) and Mike Thorne, who still somehow finds the energy to prepare and conduct these massive scores. The singers are mostly professionals who give up their time for next to nothing, providing themselves (I suppose) with experience singing roles they might not usually be cast in, while providing us with the great experience of working with great singers. Isolde this year was sung by Elaine McKrill, who has furnished our lead soprano roles since her Brünnhilde in 2002, pausing only while actually having babies. Tristan was the almost equally regular Jonathan Finney (he first sang with us the last time we did Tristan back in 2005). Nicholas Fowler, another regular visitor, sang Kurwenal, while local singers Colin Heggie and Walter Thomson were King Marke and Melot. Brangäne was Miriam Sharrad, and the brief but terribly exposed Steersman and Shepherd roles were taken by Stuart Macbeth Mitchell.
The orchestra was transformed by the establishment of scholarships to pay for talented young string players from around Britain to travel to Edinburgh and play. No longer did we see violin sections with three or four players: we had seven or eight desks per section. It was great to have a proper body of sound.
So after a couple of frenzied days of rehearsal we put on the performance (strictly an "open rehearsal" with donations invited rather than a performance with tickets sold: take a look at Breitkopf & Hartel's music hire price bands and you'll understand why), and it was a triumph. The two title roles were given especially fine performances by Jonathan and Elaine. Every time we do Tristan I grumble that it's my least favourite Wagner opera, and so it is when I listen to it or go to the theatre to watch it. But playing it is another matter altogether: more than most pieces, more than most Wagner even, Tristan comes alive as you play it. The erotic throb of the second act bedroom scene feels quite different when you're one of the people doing the throbbing (as it were).
Next year will be our second Meistersinger, if it happens. The administration of these weekends is considerable, and made harder by the distances (and different communication styles) involved. Several of the people involved this year have expressed a desire to let someone else have a go, hence the uncertainty. Still, I have little doubt the 2014 show will go on. Beyond that, I have my doubts: we'll have done two complete sets of Wagner's seven music dramas, and that would seem like a good place to call a halt. Still, as Niels Bohr is supposed to have said, prediction is hard, especially about the future.