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Tannhäuser by Tim Albery
28 Apr 2016

Tannhäuser: Royal Opera House, London

London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.

Tannhäuser: Royal Opera House, London

A review by Mark Berry

Above image by Tim Albery


True, Opera North will bring its concert Ring to the South Bank, but that is a somewhat different matter. Comparisons with serious houses, let alone serious cities, are not encouraging, especially if one widens the comparison to nineteenth-century Italian composers. Quite why is anyone’s guess; the composer is anything but unpopular. More to the point, Wagner and Mozart should stand at the heart of any opera house’s repertory. They can hardly do so if they are so rarely performed.

I mention that not only because it is very important in itself, but because it has serious implications for orchestras. What used to be Bernard Haitink’s orchestra has had a rougher time of things since his departure. Whilst a great conductor - Semyon Bychkov, for instance, in the first run of this production, or more recently, in Die Frau ohne Schatten - can still summon truly great things from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, its day-to-day experience of core German repertory is fading. Here, under Hartmut Haenchen, there were no particular upsets, but there were only hints at what the orchestra has been capable of, and still might be. Haenchen’s conducting had its moments, but it was the heavenly lengths, and how they might fit together, that were lacking. A penny-plain opening to the Overture suggested ‘authenticist’ tendencies, as if Haenchen would rather be conducting the Dresden Tannhäuser, albeit conducting it a little like ‘period’ Mendelssohn. When it came to the music written for Paris, he seemed to linger and to rush, somewhat arbitrarily. There is stylistic ‘incongruity’, yes, if we want to call it that, but should we not be making something of that, even making it into a virtue?

I suspect that Haenchen’s tempi were, on balance, considerably quicker than Bychkov’s; that was certainly not how it felt, especially in the Venusberg, whose pleasures seemed at times interminable (in the wrong sense). Indeed, the exchanges between Tannhäuser and Venus often sounded alarmingly perfunctory, robbed not only of orchestral ‘cushioning’, but of the direction that Wagner’s orchestra-as-Greek Chorus, even at this stage in his career, offers. Of Beethoven, at least as Wagner would have understood him, there was little: perhaps there was, however, of fashionable, ‘period’ Beethoven-cut-down-to-size. Compared to the most recent other Tannhäuser I had heard, superlatively conducted by Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, this was disappointing.

Disappointing in that very important respect, anyway. There was much more to savour vocally. Peter Seiffert gave a strange performance in the title role: it came and went, seemingly without reason, sometimes, especially in the first act, alarmingly out of tune, at other times spot on, always tireless, even when, understandably, his voice acquired something of an edge in parts of the Rome Narration (movingly despatched). Emma Bell was a wonderful Elisabeth; I do not think I have heard anything finer from her. Sincere but certainly not bland, this Elisabeth’s vocal qualities were subtle yet, where necessary (and it often is!), powerful. Sophie Koch’s Venus was ravishingly sung, words and music in excellent, dramatically productive, balance. Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram is a known quantity to many of us, of course, but no less welcome was it for that. The startling, almost indecent, yet utterly sincere, beauty of Gerhaher’s delivery was once again something for all to remember. There was no need to force the performance; he could draw us in so as to hear a pin drop. Phrasing was just as exemplary. Ed Lyon’s sweetly-sung, dramatically-committed Walther was another pleasure; if only he had had more to sing. Thank goodness, at least, Walther’s solo, only cut from Paris because the tenor could not sing it, was restored. Stephen Milling's sonorous Landgrave was, quite rightly, especially acclaimed by the audience. Young Raphael Janssens acquitted himself well as the Shepherd Boy. So did the chorus (and extra chorus) of Renato Balsadonna, although I think there was greater precision, and perhaps greater weight, under Bychkov in 2010.

Tim Albery’s production does not seem to have changed very much. The Venusberg scene is strongest, the ballet well choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon. It might have been a little raunchier - Wagner’s music here is, after all, the supreme musical manifestation of desperately trying and failing to achieve sexual climax - but it works well enough. The sense of the Royal Opera House being on stage is interesting in this opera. In a work whose central event is a song contest, who is performing, and why? Alas, nothing is really followed through, so that one cannot even really tell whether such metatheatrical possibilities are intended. We end up with little more than a mild compendium of clichés. One bizarre exception is the appearance of cowbells - there is, frankly, little to see - when Tannhäuser first returns to ‘normality’. Their lack of coordination would have been irritating in Mahler, but here, in Tannhäuser? If I had been Haenchen, or the house, I should have put a stop to it. This was not some interesting musical recomposition; it was just a bit of a mess. The war-torn (Balkan?) setting of the second act I presume to have taken its cue from the Landgrave’s ‘Wenn unser Schwert in blutig ernstern Kämpfen stritt für des deutschen Reiches Majestät’. It would be a stretch, however, to say that post-war deprivation was what Tannhäuser might really be ‘about’, at least without some further work on the director’s part. Albery seems content to let Michael Levine’s set designs do the work for him, which of course they cannot. The third act carries on in much the same way. Very much worth hearing for most of the singing, then, but a restricted view would not penalise you unduly.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Tannhäuser: Peter Seiffert; Elisabeth: Emma Bell; Venus: Sophie Koch; Wolfram von Eschenbach: Christian Gerhaher; Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia - Stephen Milling; Biterolf: Michael Kraus; Walther von der Vogelweide: Ed Lyon; Heinrich der Schreiber: Samuel Sakker; Reimar von Zweter: Jeremy White; Shepherd Boy: Raphael Janssens; Elisabeth’s Attendants: Kiera Lyness, Deborah Peake-Jones, Louise Armit, Kate McCarney. Tim Albery (director); Jasmin Vardimon (choreography, Venusberg scene); Michael Levine (set designs); Jon Morrell (costumes); David Finn (lighting); Maxime Braham (movement). Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Hartmut Haenchen (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Tuesday 26 April 2016.

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