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Enchanting Elisir

4 Jun

The Royal Opera was clearly having problems selling this revival of Elisir d’amore and offered its Friends some half price stalls seats.  I took the opportunity to take my niece.  It turned out to be a really happy performance.

It’s as hard to dislike Laurent Pelly’s neatly updated, very well-drilled production as it is hard to dislike the opera.  Neither puts a foot wrong nor outstays its welcome.  Some seemed to be hearkening back to the old Copley production and didn’t like Dulcamara’s lorry.  You have to be a bit of an old sourpuss to feel like that, it struck me, particularly when the lorry has flashing lights and fireworks.  There are lovely, daft ideas like the little dog that dashes across the stage and, above all, a deep understanding of how to keep the opera interesting.

Above all, Pelly keeps the human interaction at the core.   His characters are human beings who react to each other, listen and love.  That is what this lovely piece is about and the great duets where moved like dialogues.  This is a production that could quite easily go on forever.

I’d not originally been that taken with the cast but it was, actually, extremely good.  Pretty Yende has a lovely bright voice and she uses it intelligently, tastefully, musically.  I’ve heard other singers make more of a fuss out of Prendi and others with simply more sparkle in the voice for La ricetta e il mio visino.  I felt that she was tiring, slightly towards the end – the voice became just a tad shriller, the top slightly less grateful.  But, as well as a lovely voice and really good singing, she acts the role alertly.  I’ve ever found Adina a particularly sympathetic or attractive character.  Yende at least found a decency and honesty in her which made her rather interesting.  This was a super debut, however, and she’ll be welcome back.

So will Liparit Avetisyan who sang Nemorino – a replacement for Rolando Villazon.  I must say that I cannot imagine anyone regretting Villazon’s absence.  Avetisyan has a lovely gentle, warm voice that struck me as absolutely ideal for his role: nice high notes, but a warmth of phrasing and an openness about his singing that made him an absolute winner with the audience.  I’ve heard Una furtiva lagrima sung perhaps with greater style, with subtler pianissimi and more art, but rarely more openly or honestly.  He has a nice, gentle charm and the role seemed ideal for him.

Paolo Bordogna struck me as another very useful, stylish Italian baritone who I’d like to hear more of in these roles.  He caught the ridiculousness of Belcore but also, again, the basic decency.

Alex Esposito is that rare thing, a thin Dulcamara.  Maybe, a fuller, fruitier voice and a slightly more over-the-top personality would have helped but I really enjoyed his intelligent acting and his clear, strong singing.  He was alert, didn’t overplay and, again you believed in him.

The four made a lovely ensemble and, I’ve no doubt, were helped by Bertrand de Billy’s stylish, sensitive conducting.  The pace seemed right, the singers were able to breath and the delicacy and emotion of the score came across just about perfectly.  I like a stronger climax to the slow crescendo in the Act I finale (just listen to Pritchard on CD here) but its absence was, pretty much the only cavil I hard.  Chorus and orchestra were just fine.

Emma sat, pretty much, entranced, enjoying the fun, following the way the emotions turned and this was a show which made this opera seem as good as new.  A really lovely evening.

Moderate Don Carlos

21 May

Ok, time to get back to this blogging lark.  I’ve had some good times over the last few months – smashing Faramondo and Ormisda at the London Handel Festival and the fantastic Exterminating Angel at the ROH and Dr Atomic at the Barbican – but somehow didn’t get to writing them up.  Mind you, there also that Meistersinger… Anyway, back to work and first up is Don Carlos at the ROH which I saw on 15 May.

There is so much that there is wonderful about Don Carlo that it’s quite easy to get into the mindset that any performance short of the extraordinary is, in some way, a failure. It’s an attitude that ignores, first, the real problems with the opera and, second, the fact I would rather see a flawed one than miss the piece at all.  But the overall attitude to the opera is so easy to get into one’s head that I think it explains why people have been rather muted about what struck me as a very decent performance.

The cast, despite two late replacements, was pretty strong.  Bryan Hymel as Carlo sang strongly, if not subtly and made probably as good an authentic Verdian sound as you can get these days.  Maybe the odd pianissimo would be nice and he doesn’t exactly look the young romantic hero.

I was also impressed by Ildar Abdrazakov as Philip who created a very human king indeed. I loved his pianissimo opening to his Act IV aria and the way in which he caught the authority and the dilemmas of the role.  He opened up to Posa humanly.  Whereas with Furlanetto, you felt that here was a king unbending slightly, this was a man who was faced with being a king.

Christoph Pohl was a late replacement for Ludovic Tezier.  I think he’s a rather special baritone.  He has absolutely the right sound for the role: a sort of virile lightness that impressed me.  He caught the open, humanity of the role and looks good.  I wouldn’t mind hearing him again.

There was a gloriously old-fashioned, mezzo/contralto Eboli from Ekaterina Semanchuk: again as good as I’ve heard.  The role seemed to hold no terror for her and if, occasionally, you wanted more subtlety she’d then wow you with a top note or her gorgeous, rich lower register.  Her acting was pretty generic Eboli and I missed the some of the softness that Sonia Ganassi brought when the production was new, but if you want a Verdi mezzo…

I had most reservations about Kristin Lewis as Elisabeth – a late replacement for Krassimira Stroyanova.  She has a dark, Verdian voice, very much in the Leontyne Price mould but without the same control.  There was a real squalliness about her singing and, as with most Elisabeths, I found my mind wandering during her Act V aria and, indeed, the following duet.  I did enjoy her acting, particularly in Act I where she created a loving, youthful, open princess and she charted the journey from that to the sad, despairing queen rather well.

Bertrand de Billy conducting struck me as very fine too: he conjured some wonderful sounds out of the orchestra and his tempi seemed to be effortlessly right.  I really enjoyed the phrasing, particularly of the early parts and the wailing, growling strings in the last act.  He caught the sheer terror of the Grand Inquisitor (Paata Burchuladze, not as effectual vocally as he might have been ten years ago, but a strong presence) and he paced it really effectively, making you listen to the dialogues and the arias.  This was conducting that made you realise what a great work this is.

So maybe the problem was the staging.  Nicholas Hytner’s production had its problems even when it was new.  It’s at its best in the dialogues where, still, the emotions, the characterisations and the ideas ring true and they’re interesting.

The problem comes in the public scenes.  The auto da fe never really worked and, though it’s been reworked, there were just too few people for the space, Carlos’s insurrection was a mess and the picture of people with swords just standing there doing nothing is really poor.  The end of Act IV is similarly weak and the opening of the second scene of Act II can’t disguise the fact that the veil song is just a bit of padding.

The sets are variable.  The shaking trees in the first act are still there and are a bit of a disgrace and, for a lot of the time, the space is just too large.   They’re still beautifully lit.

Overall then, this was a decent, perfectly adequate performance of Don Carlos – the problems I’ve identified with the production are problems that the opera itself presents and Hytner’s failure is in coming to grips with those.  You don’t feel that there’s a vision for the opera or any guiding idea.  On the other hand, I still got a lot of pleasure out of this performance, mostly from the musical side and a newcomer will have got a good idea of why this is such a special opera.

Compelling new ROH Cosi

24 Sep

The interpretations that directors get out of Cosi fan tutte seem limitless.  Some of them don’t work but it’s rare to come out of a Cosi thinking that you’ve learned nothing new about the work.  And this was confirmed by the marvellously intelligent and inventive new production at the ROH, which I saw at its first night on 22 September.

The majority of Kasper Holten’s imported directors have misfired but we have a notable exception in Jan Philipp Gloger.  His idea is that the performance begins after a production of Cosi and we see the four lovers in the audience, the boys arguing about the opera until invited up on to the stage by Alfonso.  Gradually, the couples are drawn backstage and he beautifully catches the mix of artificial commedia dell’arte comedy with the real emotions.  Alfonso and Despina are part of the troupe and use their theatrical resources to set up the different set pieces.  At times we see the audience as well – watching during Alfonso’s summing up of the moral and, themselves, illustrating the idea.  And Gloger has the idea that Fiordiligi and Dorabella realise what’s going on at the beginning of Act II and play along for the fun of it.

It’s a very busy production with multiple sets and props moving about, heavily choreographed and very precise.  But none of this detracts from the emotional side.  Ferrando sings Un aura amorosa looking at the sleeping girls – a beautiful, ambiguous moment.  During Per pieta, Guglielmo comes on to retrieve some of the clothing he’s lost during the previous duet while both the men’s arias catch the seriousness of the emotions.  It’s a lovely, fascinating, happy production that catches the artificiality of the opera while keeping its emotions close to you.  It reminds me of the sort of invention that we got with Christoph Loy’s Ariadne here.  Some have described it as charmless – since I’ve never found Cosi a particularly charming opera, that didn’t worry me.

We had a lovely young cast, four of them making their debuts here.  Corinne Winter was Fiordiligi – I wasn’t completely convinced that she’s a natural Mozart soprano – not all of the singing sounded completely true – but she delivered an outstanding Per pieta – one of the most moving and intense that I’ve heard and her acting was clear, direct, youthful.  Angela Brower was a lighter, flightier Dorabella, in excellent voice.  Sabina Puertolas was a lively, intelligent, stroppy Despina.

Daniel Behle sang one of the best Ferrandos that I’ve heard – some gorgeous, intense pianissimi, an outstanding stylist and a nice actor.  Alessio Arduino caught the livelier, stroppier Guglielmo and Johann Martin Kraenzle was a heavier than usual Alfonso but alert, enjoying stage managing the show and, as is the fashion at the moment, rejected by Despina and everyone else by the end.

Semyon Bychkov was conducting his first ever Cosi.  It was a loving, intense, very leisurely reading.  I’m not sure that I’ve heard slower Mozart since Haitink’s four hour Don Giovanni.  Bychkov didn’t quite reach that but an opera that some conductors can get through in three hours took three hours 40 and that was with the usual cuts.  I didn’t mind.  None of the tempi felt wrong (that for Per pieta felt intensely, beautifully right) and I loved the way in which he handled the textures, the interplay of the instruments and the phrasing.  I heard new things, new ideas in the pit and the orchestra played wonderfully for him.  This was elegant, thoughtful, happy Mozart.

This run doesn’t appear to be selling that well: an unknown director and a cast without big names.  That’s a shame: it’s an engaging, highly professional, beautifully sung and prepared piece of work and is breath of fresh air at the ROH.  I hope that Mr Gogler is invited back and I hope this Cosi returns regularly.  Go and see it.

Il Trova-fly

3 Jul

Il Trovatore has two problems: a perception of an improbable plot and a requirement for singing that is pretty rare these days.  If you don’t need absolutely the four greatest singers in the world, you need four who are in the top rank and able to cope with the generosity and accuracy that Verdi demands.  Most of these problems were in evidence at the very disappointing first night of the new ROH production on 2nd July.

Let’s begin with the production.  It was by David Bösch, a young German Director who has done some opera in Germany and a lot of plays.  I think this is his first Verdi and perhaps it’s unfair to have given him the sort of opera that has all those elements of opera than non-specialists find so difficult to take: arias and cabelettas, trios, dramatic ensembles and numbers that involve people standing round doing not much more than singing out. We’re rapidly losing the art of directing this sort of melodrama and I don’t think Herr Bösch has the answer.

The setting is a wintry landscape in some sort of modern state  – I think, but Leonora and the nuns seem to go around in ball gowns, even when trying to rescue Manrico.  Luna’s army has a tank – which looks very funny as it comes in huge shooter forward at the beginning of Act III.  The gipsies, interestingly, are circus, fair-ground types, rather than rebels, with Azucena in a Carmen costume.  The last scene is set in a barbed wire compound with Manrico and Azucena walking round more or less at liberty.  It’s an opera that depends a lot on darkness and people not seeing each other.  Even under camouflage, I think the nuns might have noticed that tank and the stage was pretty clearly lit: there was no chance of Leonora seriously mistaking Luna for Manrico.

There’s the obligatory video – birds circling and, most irritatingly, a butterfly that flies amusingly as Leonora sings (distracting you from her) and which looks really funny.  I don’t think this is intended.  What it has to do with Trovatore was utterly opaque to me.

There was some pretty half-hearted violence – a prisoner in Act III who seems to have all kinds of things happening to him but which never quite works.  At the end of the first scene, Azucena has petrol poured over her and faggots piled up by her, only to be taken away at the end.  There were two half-good moments: Leonora paused before her abduction by the grave she believed to be Manrico’s; and a prisoner was killed at Castellor just in time for Leonora to muse on this place of death.  But there wasn’t a lot else.

More seriously, despite the setting and odd ideas, the direction of the principals was distressingly inept.  They did nothing more than stand at the front and sing. There was little chemistry between them, little passion and, with one exception, I didn’t believe a word of it.  And the point about Trovatore is that it only ever works if the participants believe absolutely in what they’re doing and have some conviction to their passion. And just standing there isn’t enough.

Of course, Trovatore can be saved by great singing and a great musical performance.  Neither were really in evidence here and, probably, can’t be expected today.  The finest performance, and one which was very special indeed, came from Ekaterina Semenchuk.  In both Stride la vampa and Ai nostri monti she sang with an intensity and a really special pianissimo that had the house reaching out to listen to her.  There was that special silence that goes with really fine singing.  As she gets more experience, she’ll make more of some of the melodramatic declamation – Il mio figlio needs more bite and clearer words.  And in a better production, she’ll be a really great Azucena.  If I had any doubts about going to Don Carlo next season, her performance of Eboli will be a must see.

I had hoped that Zeljko Lucic would be similarly fine as Luna and, at the start, it sounded so promising – the rich astringent tone sounded like Gobbi and I really warmed to him.  But Il balen was, to put it mildly, only intermittently in tune and, as the evening went on, he seemed to lose interest.  It was a major disappointment.

Lianna Haroutounian was the Leonora – impressive in the first Act, but less and less interesting as it went on. It was perfectly decent, strong singing without ever making you feel that this was a particularly interesting Leonora.  Manrico is an impossible role.  Francesco Meli sang it probably as well as you can expect.  The high Cs, probably wisely, were avoided, and something very odd seemed to happen round about his entrance in the Miserere.  He makes a handsome figure on the stage and it was good to have some authentic Italian pronunciation.  On the other hand, you could not possible say that this was the answer to our prayers for a world-class Manrico.

Maurizio Muraro was a good Ferrando and Jennifer Davis made a very strong Inez.  The chorus was on outstanding form: clear, virile and together: this was as good choral singing as I’ve ever heard in this opera.

I admired a lot of Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting.  He found textures in the orchestration that I’d not heard before – the interplay of the instruments was really clearly done, the trumpets particularly fine.  On the other hand, tempi seemed variable: fast at the beginning, but feeling rather meandering and slow – particularly at the end of Act II and of the opera itself.

There may have been some first night problems.  The ROH have scheduled quite a lot of performances into the last fortnight of the season with alternating casts.  I wonder whether there’d been quite enough rehearsal and it may well be that, at later performances it might gel more musically.  And if you could delete the video and that wretched butterfly then you’d get rid of half the problems.  It still wouldn’t be a vibrant or interesting Trovatore.  I can’t see it lasting and I really can’t recommend that you go to see it.

In Parenthesis

3 Jul

1st July 2016 was about as appropriate a day as it gets to see an opera about the Battle of the Somme.  And the WNO chose this as the last performance of their production of In Parenthesis – about that battle – in their very welcome annual visit to the Royal Opera house.

The opera is based on a poem by David Jones – a modernist synthesis of his feelings about the battle.  I don’t know the poem.  The opera begins with the Bards of Britannia and Germania and moves pretty quickly to the Welsh regiment that will end up, mostly, being slaughtered at the Somme.  The hero, Private John Ball, is one of the last survivors and ends up being surrounded by the Queen of the woods and her fairies.  There are pictures of the regiment preparing for war, moving to the south, experiencing Christmas and then moving to the slaughter.

Iain Bell wrote the music.  There are good things: clear setting of the words, some marvelous choruses.  I’m not convinced that there’s anything here that takes us any further than the Britten of Billy Budd or the War Requiem.  It’s unobtrusive, inoffensive music for an opera that doesn’t have a lot of dramatic tension or interest.  It struck me, as much as anything, as a celebration/centenary piece rather than a particularly dramatic opera or one that would make its way in the repertory.

It was pretty well done.  The cast was excellent.  John Hidlake, a new name to me, was very strong indeed as Bell, the hero and main interest of the piece.  His clear, bright tenor suits the work well and I’d like to hear him in more – he’d be fine in Britten.  As his friend, Lewis, Marcus Farnsworth gave another very sympathetic, clear performance.

Among senior members of the cast, Donald Maxwell as Greatcoat, Graham Clark as the Marne Sergeant and Mark le Brocq as Snell gave well acted, eye-catching performances.  As the Bard of Britannia, Peter Coleman-Wright was in dry voice but gave an experienced performance, even if you weren’t quite sure what the point of his role was.  Alexandra Deshorties as the only female principal, impressed as the Bard of Germania, Alice the Barmaid and the Queen of the Woods: it’s an impressive voice and she sang strongly.

Carlo Rizzi conducted apparently very clearly.  The WNO orchestra was good and its chorus absolutely outstanding in some pretty wonderful choruses.

David Pountney directed.  It was pretty obvious stuff and he didn’t seem challenged or particularly interested in challenging us.  A lot of the stage pictures looked pretty 1950s to me.  Much the same applies to Robert Innes Hopkins’s set.

It was a pleasant enough, moderately enjoyable evening.  I can’t say I’d break my heart if I never saw it again.

 

 

 

 

Enescu’s Oedipe

27 May

Enescu’s Oedipe was written between 1910 and 1936.  It was apparently successful at its first performance but got rather forgotten following the second world war.  The ROH finally got round to it on 23rd May and I was there.  It wasn’t billed as the UK premiere but i certainly can’t recall a staged production here.

The piece strikes me as typical of operas by composers who only wrote one, or possibly two, pieces in the genre – Genoveva, Doktor Faust, King Roger spring to mind – where (a) the musical interest is greater than the dramatic and (b) you have to be interested that sort of musical idiom if you’re going to enjoy it.

Enescu has taken the Oedipus legend, set slimmed down versions of the two Sophocles plays and preceded them with scenes depicting Oedipus’s birth, he decision to return to Thebes, the murder of Laius and the encounter with the sphinx.  It creates a portrait of Oedipus himself with meaty roles for the people he encounters in each scene and one or two very effective scenes: that with the sphinx struck me as particularly fine, as were the last two scenes.  He creates superb atmosphere for the scenes: the opening of the scene for Laius’s murder and that for the sphinx were the ones which had me sitting up.

The idiom owes a lot to Debussy, Chausson, even Sibelius.  It’s perfectly pleasant to listen to and you admire the very vivid, imaginative orchestration and, if this is a period of music that you respond to, you will react like stout Cortez.

You’ll have guessed that I didn’t.  I admired in a rather distant way, but felt no urge to rush to buy a CD.  I missed any sense of dramatic impetus; I missed memorable vocal lines or ones which had me really listening; it feels leisurely – the opening seems to go on for ever and I started wondering whether I would stay for the second half.  I’m glad I did because it gets better even if it never quite makes you feel that Enescu was comfortable with the form.  I’m very glad that I saw an interesting, worthwhile opera but I could happily wait another twenty years before seeing it again.

This was in spite of a really outstanding performance.  The cast must be as good as you can get.  Johann Reuter was, predictably, an intense, clearly sung and very convincing Oedipe, getting almost Lear-like sense of development to the character and aging superbly.  It’s a huge role and he paced it with assurance.

Surrounding him were John Tomlinson as Teiresias, clear, angry and loud; Sarah Connolly who made the most of a relatively small role as Jocasta; Marie-Nicole Lemieux brilliant as the sphinx; Alan Oke as the Shepherd; Samuel Youn as Creon and Stefan Kocan, who did his scene as the Watchman with great authority.  This was great casting: a marvellous ensemble put together with great care.

Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, together with Alfons Flores, the designer, have created a masterpiece of a production: from the opening frieze-like coup to the final shower of silver water as Oedipus died, it was full of memorable scenes and images: the sphinx as a plane with propeller whirring, the shepherds as road workers.  He managed an outstanding response to the piece which looked beautiful and seemed at one with it.  I couldn’t fault it.

I don’t know the piece enough to comment about Leo Hussain’s conducting.  I thought it was authoritative and clear without making a compelling case for the work as anything other than an occasional visitor.  The orchestra and huge chorus seemed outstanding to me – again, not obviously putting a foot wrong.

Oedipe is never going be to a repertory piece but it’s good enough to be done every fifteen years or so and anyone curious about forgotten operas should hurry to this truly superb performance of it.

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.