Tannhäuser after thirty years

27 Apr

It’s over thirty years since I last saw Tannhäuser  – when the old Moshinsky production was new.  I missed its only revival because the performance I’d booked for was cancelled because of a strike and, for other reasons, I missed the first run of the ROH’s present production.  I made up for that by making sure I got to the first performance of its first revival on 26th April.

I still remember that 1984 performance because of the sheer luxury of the singing.  I remember feeling that I’d never heard such gloriously easy Wagner singing before and that cast – Gwyneth Jones, Klaus König, Thomas Allen and Eva Randova -was probably about as good as you could get at the time.  On reflection, it may just have been the sheer volume of some of that cast that impressed me.  And Colin Davis knew what he was doing with the score.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t think much of the production and thought the opera a bit of a bore.

I still have my doubts about the opera.  I’m not sure that it’s much more than a piece of 19th century hokum on the same sort of level as, say, Faust, which is far more entertaining.  What seems wrong these days is that Venusberg, whatever that symbolises, is unreflectingly seen as A Bad Thing – and nothing Wagner does suggests that there might be a half-way house between that and the ghastly society of the Wartburg.  With that lot, it’s no surprise that Tannhäuser broke free.  And an exploration of the tension between the two would make the opera more interesting.  As it is, we have tale of redemption which Wagner did better in, say, Dutchman, Tristan or the Ring.  There’s some nice music, but there’s a fair bit that plods.

Tim Albery’s production was highly praised first time round.  I’m not sure.  Of course, it’s a professional, thoughtful piece of work that looks good, but I’m not convinced that it makes the opera seem good. The problem begins quite early on.  We see Tannhäuser at the beginning, lured away by Venus through a replica Royal Opera House proscenium and curtain.  He’s followed by a group of other men, taken away by Venus’s harpies.  The Venusberg ballet takes place round a vast table which revolves.  The choreography by Jasmin Vardimon is clever and takes your breath away with the sheer athleticism and precision that it requires.  But you’re watching a spectacle.  It isn’t erotic, even though the men lose their shirts and the women their tops.  It isn’t dangerous – except insofar as you wonder whether one of them might fall off that table.  And it’s slightly comic.  It’s hard to see what the Wartburg mob were getting so worked up about.

Act II is set in a wrecked hall – parts of the proscenium covered in dust and rubble.  The Landgrave’s people are armed, poor and suspicious.  Shouldn’t they be religious too?  This asks for a statement about a theocracy or some other totalitarian state and it simply doesn’t get it.  And the failure of the contrast, for me, makes the whole thing seem a bit pointless.  The third act is well enough done but I was unconvinced by the identification of the ROH or any other theatre with depravity.

The characterisation of the roles is generally good and strong, as you would expect, but this didn’t engage or , particularly, interest me.  It was a clear, sensible narrative of the story but I didn’t think the production went beyond that.

The cast was good and almost entirely different from the 2010 incarnation (a good thing Albery was back to direct).  The exception was Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram, who was highly praised in 2010.  You can’t doubt the quality of his singing or that you were listening to a really wonderful lieder singer, relishing the words, communicating through the words and the notes without show and making it sound easy and natural.  His enunciation is a joy, his colouring of the notes outstanding.  For much of the time he sings softly, drawing you in, making you listen, but he can open up the passion and volume when he wants to without sacrificing the beauty of the tone or the sheer consistency of the line.  It’s a long time since I’ve heard singing of this care and integrity in this theatre.  And yet…  Dramatically, Gerhaher seems to present Wolfram as an outsider, gauche, uncertain, thoughtful – his look seemed to be one of perpetual earnest concern.  It’s hard to see how he relates to everyone else or to understand the conflict between his friendship with Tannhäuser and his love for Elisabeth.  I still remember how outstandingly Thomas Allen did that and how his fuller voice and just more open buoyant personality made more of the role.  As I write, I’m listening to Haitink recording – Weikl gets greater generosity a more operatic sound to Wolfram’s piece in Act I.  There’s room for both and I’m glad I experienced Gerhaher’s performance.

For me, however, the real star was Emma Bell as Elisabeth.  This was the finest performance I’ve yet heard from this singer.  Here is a full, beautiful voice capable of managing the sheer radiant joy of Dich teure Halle and the passion and despair of her third Act number and the honesty of her duet with Tannhäuser.  And she sang precisely and clearly with none of blowsy spreading that you often get with Wagner sopranos.  She’s an expressive actress and makes the words tell.  She’s an outgoing, generous singer who made Elisabeth into a believable, moving character.  Can we please have her back as Sieglinde, Agathe, Ariadne, Chrysothemis and Senta?

It’s more than 25 years since I saw Peter Seiffert here as Parsifal.  The voice is still in remarkably fine fettle, managing the horrors of Tannhäuser, if not with ease then convincingly, which is about as much as you can ask.  Words were clear and expressively sung and I thought that he did the narration in Act III really well, getting the  despair and anger over really well.  It’s a shame we haven’t heard more of him in the interim.  Visually, he’s stolid and not an expressive actor.

Sophie Koch was Venus.  She’s a singer whose integrity and voice I admire, without ever finding her particularly exciting or interesting.  Venus needs an element of glamour about her (which Randova had redoubled in spades) and, despite the beauty of her singing, I never felt that this Venus was a significant rival to Elisabeth.  She struck me as rather passionless.

Stephen Milling made an excellent, dark-voice Landgrave, Ed Lyon sang Walther von der Vogelweide strongly, more than holding his own in this company and Michael Kraus made his mark as Biterolf.

I’d expected more sheer noise from the chorus, given the fact that there were approaching 100 of them, but their singing was clear, strong and distinguished.  This seemed in line with Hartmut Haenchen’s approach to the score: clear, detailed, concentrating on the texture and accompanying the singers thoughtfully, intelligently. The orchestra played very well indeed for him and you couldn’t doubt the quality of the interpretation.  But there were points where I would have welcomed just a bit less care, a bit more passion and the sweep to remind us that this is early Wagner, still writing with the Parisian, even Italian influences there and that there’s a melodramatic, grand operatic side to this score.  I never felt he quite let go.

This sounds as though I had a disappointing evening.  It wasn’t.  It was a performance of really high quality with intelligent, strong direction and really good singing and conducting.  It was good to see the opera again even if, ultimately, I’m not convinced that it has a lot to say to us today or if the interpretation completely worked.  And Bell and Gerhaher were very special.






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