Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

A Venetian Double: English Touring Opera

Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s fifteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Walter Braunfels : Orchestral Songs Vol 1

New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.



Johann Botha as Tannhäuser [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of the Royal Opera House]
14 Dec 2010

Wagner Tannhäuser: Royal Opera House, London

The Royal Opera House itself is the star of this new production of Richard Wagner Tannhäuser. An intriguing twist on an opera that pits orgiastic excess against purity, pleasure against morality.

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser

Venus: Michaela Schuster, Tannhäuser: Johann Botha, Shepherd boy: Alexander Lee, Landgrave Herrmann: Christof Fischesser, Wolfram von Eschinbach: Christian Gerhaher, Walther von Vogelweide: Timothy Robinson, Heinrich der Schreiber: Steven Ebel, Biterolf: Clive Bayley, Reinmar von Zweter: Jeremy White, Elisabeth: Eva-Marie Westbroek. Conductor: Semyon Bychkov, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Director Tim Albery, Choreography: Jasmin Vardimon, Set Design: Michael Levine, Costume Design: Jon Morrell, Lighting Design: David Finn, Movement Director: Maxine Braham. Royal Opera Chorus, Director: Renato Balsadonna. 11th December 2010, Royal Opera House, London.

Above: Johann Botha as Tannhäuser

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of the Royal Opera House


Perhaps Tim Albery’s inspiration came from the prize-singing contest. Dominating the stage in the First Act is a fake Royal Opera House proscenium, complete with fake velvet curtains and gold trimmings. It’s absolutely stunning. But beware! The fact remains, Tannhäuser is not Adriana Lecouvreur.

For Wagner, Tannhäuser is torn between extremes. Venusberg represents orgiastic excess and abandonment, Wartburg ascetic self denial. Wartburg wins. Venusberg doesn’t. If Albery thinks Tannhäuser is a metaphor for opera and for the Royal Opera House in particular, maybe he should get out more and see the real world. Prize song contests aren’t just about “singing”, as we know from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and it is even closer to medieval morality tales. For Wagner (who personally liked velvet and excess) what is at issue is a new sensibility built on rigorous conceptual thinking. Wagner’s deliberately distancing himself from Meyerbeer and what he thought of as feelgood, but brainless, glitz.

Hence, the ballet that portrays Venusberg. It’s a pointed dig against the kind of entertainment Wagner rejected, and at the kind of audiences who used to flock to see ballerinas’ legs, ignoring the music and drama. Here the ballet is presented completely devoid of irony. Once I saw a production where the ballet was a bondage orgy, the dancers inhuman beasts. Horrifying yet hypnotic, which is why Tannhäuser was enslaved. If Venusberg was as safe and wholesome and dull as this ballet, he would have long since died of boredom.

TANN-101208_2363-WESTBROEK-.gifEva-Marie Westbroek as Elisabeth

Albery’s Wartburg is post apocalyptic greyness. The Royal Opera House arch lies broken, twisted like rubble in the background. Visually, though this adds a vertical element to the horizontal flatness. The barrenness is valid, since Wartburg’s in crisis situation. If Venusberg’s no fun, Wartburg should be even less so. Physical movement in the First Act is slow to the point of being comatose. At first I thought this was to allow for Johann Botha’s disability, which would be laudable, but then remembered that excessively slow movement is a Tim Albery trademark. In Albery’s Der fliegende Holländer , Bryn Terfel spent much of the time appearing to pull a long rope suspended diagonally across the stage. (An echo of that rope appears in this Tannhäuser too.) Grunge aesthetic is an Albery thing, whatever the opera or the singer, and sometimes it works. Obviously directors have an individual language, as all artists do, but grimness for its own sake can become tedious if it holds up dramatic flow.

Tannhäuser is not a romantic hero. He left Wartburg in a pique and gave in whole-heartedly to Venusberg’s excesses. Thus Johann Botha’s portrayal is psychologically accurate. Wagner’s whole point is that the character is sated, almost destroyed by what he’s experienced, yet still has a spark of goodness that makes him worth saving. That’s why Elisabeth cares about him. Why redeem someone who doesn’t need help? Botha’s characterization was much more subtle and true to the role and to the opera than might meet the eye. On the ear, too, he was very good, totally justifying the casting, even if his voice flagged in the final Act. Much better that Botha sings Tannhäuser with a sense of his inner complexes. Conflict is central to this opera, and Botha’s singing expresses depth and complexity. It’s a difficult role, and less gratifying because the big showpiece song isn’t his, but Botha shows that he’s a hero in his own way. Perhaps Wagner knew that the Meyerbeer crowd would never understand.

TANN-101206_1539-SCHUSTER-A.gifMichaela Schuster as Venus

Tannhäuser might see Elisabeth as the Virgin Mary, but Elisabeth is a real woman with intense passions. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s singing brings out the wildness, even the sexuality in the role. Westbroek’s forte is bringing personality to the parts she sings, and here she turns an almost stereotype into a fully-formed human being,. A lesser singer would be trapped by the restrictions created by this costume and direction. Westbroek overcomes these obstacles by her innate artistry.

Three different people in the audience mentioned that Christian Gerhaher sings like a Lieder singer. This has become such a cliché that maybe it’s time to think what that actually means. Gerhaher got mauled by Fischer-Dieskau fans many years ago, so conversely I’ve listened to him with much greater sympathy than otherwise. I’ve got most of his records and been to most of his UK concerts. He’s an excellent singer, but the smoothness of his line is best suited to roles which reach beyond the fundamental grittiness of Lieder. He’s a perfect Wolfram von Eschenbach. Here his clean timbre creates Wolfram as an idealized symbolic figurehead, not quite of this world even though he was a historic figure. That, for me, is why Gerhaher’s Wolfram was sublime. The character itself is less important than what it represents. Wolfram is the embodiment of “die heilige deutsche Kunst”, something greater than mere mortals.

TANN-101208_2365-GERHAHER-A.gifChristian Gerhaher as Wolfram von Eschinbach

Semyon Bychkov conducted the Royal Opera House Orchestra. Very beautiful, emphasizing the lyricism in the score. The interludes uninterrupted by staging were excellent. Given Albery’s view that Tannhäuser operates at a critical post-trauma turning point, one might have hoped that Bychkov might have injected some crackling tension into the music. It’s not a comfortable opera. Wagner declares against Venus, after all.

At the end, another typical Albery touch. In his Der fliegende Holländer, the Dutchman’s haunting portrait was replaced by a toy boat. That’s acceptable, as an indication of Senta’s fantasist immaturity. In this Tannhäuser there’s no papal staff to burst into leaf. Instead a small boy, seated on the same chair Tannhäuser sat in, playing with what looks like a neon toy Xmas tree. Even if it’s supposed to be symbolic, it’s absurd. Reductionism can work extremely well in opera, but badly done, it turns to trivia.

Michaela Schuster, who sang the Princess in Adriana Lecouvreur, recently sang Venus. A sold cast all round: good support from Timothy Robinson, Steven Ebel, Clive Bayley and Jeremy White.

This production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser runs at the Royal Opera House, London until January 2nd 2011. For more information, please see the Royal Opera House site.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):