Julian’s brother and manager, James, had already given me a brief lowdown on some of the artists involved – Carleen Anderson, Cleveland Watkiss, Christine Tobin, Relish’s Ken Papenfus, Shabaka Hutchings – and he was most enthused about the potentially ideological twist that author/journalist Mike Phillips had given the libretto.
Tristan and Isolde is the pianist’s third operatic project. The first was Bridgetower – the true story of an enslaved courtier in England. The second was Shadowball which deals segregation in American baseball. Though I haven’t seen the latter, I’m keen to know more about the bonds forged between touring baseball players and jazz musicians who met on the road and stayed in the same hotels due to pre-Civil Rights apartheid. ‘Shadowball’ is due to be premiered in the US and with the support of the Smithsonian Institute it will be taken to different US cities as part of an education programme.
The performance at the ROH was but a “window” into what’s to come and on the night Mike Phillips introduced the concept behind the libretto which reworks and relocates Tristan & Isolde into 21st century Europe. In this verson King Marko, Tristan’s guardian, is transformed int a Transylvanian drug dealer and Tristan and Isolde, the two main characters, are of mixed race – African and European! Adolf Hitler – a Wagner devotee – must be turning in his grave!
A Wagnerian influenced trio piece introduced the music of the night that merged into a deep original composition called ‘Faith’. A spirited Trane influenced tenor solo from Shabaka lifted the vibe and generated a wave of spontaneous appreciation.It was only after the intermission that were introduced to the actual work in progress.
Each composition/aria was deftly arranged for his trio, reeds, trumpet and trombone. The tempos, as our host told us were were mostly down-tempo, and as the set unfolded around ‘I Was Dreaming’, ‘Do You Believe in Love’, ‘I Come from Everywhere and Nowhere’ we were drawn into the story . Carleen took to the stage first, resplendent in a floor length gown, and took on her song in breathtaking fashion. Her duet with Tobin produced a sharp contrast in vocal styles, as did the pieces between the equally soulful duo of Papenthus and Watkiss.
All in all. ‘Windows into Tristan & Isolde’ was exactly that. A work in progress, it was short and sweet and I for one will be back to experience the whole of this jazz based opera.