Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Tannhäuser: A voiceless knight requires some quick thinking at The Royal Opera

29 January 2023


Wagner’s finger-wagging tale about the ills of carnal desires is revived at Covent Garden replete with some sensational singing.

Tannhäuser

Ekaterina Gubanova & Stefan Vinke (Photo: Clive Barda)

A pious, travelling knight falls prey to the wiles of a seductress, yet comes to his senses just in time, rejects her advances, and instead chooses the path of righteousness. Trying to forget his transgressions, he nevertheless lets slip that he has been tempted by carnal delights much to the horror of his peers and the virtuous Elisabeth. Banished, he sets out on a pilgrimage to be absolved by the pope. But things don’t quite go according to plan. They never do in Wagner – especially in his earlier operas, and Tannhäuser is no exception. No definitive edition exists as the composer kept revising the work over a long period of time. Here, The Royal Opera performs the 1875 version which contains elements of both the Paris and Dresden editions.

Does it present us with the best of both worlds? Probably yes, but it fails to resolve the problem at the core of this opera – that long stretches fail to ignite much interest, and that characterisation and dramaturgy are at times sketchy, to put it politely. Many ideas that were to take flight and become fully formed in his later masterpieces are given their first, tentative outings here. There’s a song contest in the second act, which becomes the central part in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, while the seductress Venus is a prototype for the multi-faceted character of Kundry in Parsifal. Indeed the last act of Tannhäuser centres around the idea of redemption, which Wagner developed later – becoming the central message of his final work for the stage.

Having said that, Tannhäuser does contain much fine music, even if it fails to hang together as a unified, integrated work. However, it needs more of a galvanising presence in the pit than conductor Sebastian Wiegle was able to muster on the first night. His direction was flabby, and unprepossessing – melodic lines sagged where tension was required, while orchestral textures often sounded muddied. One expected much more, given his Wagnerian credentials. Given how well the orchestra played, especially the off-stage horns and brass which were thrilling, it was a shame that the conducting wasn’t more inspired. Maybe that will come as the run progresses – or maybe Alexander Soddy can ignite some fire in the pit that was sorely lacking here, when he takes over for the final performance on 16 February.

It can’t have helped that the evening’s Tannhäuser, Stefan Vinke, had been forced to withdraw only a few hours before curtain up when he lost his voice. Austrian tenor Norbert Ersnt was drafted in, singing from the side of the stage while Vinke walked the role. All concerned made the best they could given the situation. Ernst saved the day, sang heroically, and once past some understandable nerves at the start, relaxed as the evening progressed, and went on to deliver an eloquent Rome Narration in the final act.

“…Tannhäuser does contain much fine music, even if it fails to hang together as a unified, integrated work…”

Tannhäuser

Lise Davidsen (Photo: Clive Barda)

Ekaterina Gubanova used her husky mezzo voice, equipped with some thrilling high notes, to telling effect as Venus, while Mika Kares stood as out as noble, affecting Landgrave – his rich, resonant, sepulchral bass delivering some of the evening’s most memorable singing. As Wolfram, Gerald Finley was outstanding, capping his gripping, intelligently sung portrayal with a poignant, achingly beautiful ‘O, du mein holder Abendtstern’. He brought a lieder-like intensity to his performance, and was a clear audience favourite.

As Elisabeth, Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen brought burning intensity, a rock solid technique and high notes that were hurled out effortlessly. Without ever sounding shrill, she moulded Wagner’s vocal lines with warmth and sensitivity. This was a glorious assumption of the role with Davidsen delivering some of the finest Wagner singing to be heard at Covent Garden in recent years. She is destined to become a superb Isolde and Brünnhilde, but given she’s still in her mid-thirties, we may have to wait a couple of years until she takes on those monumental tasks.

Tim Albery’s staging hasn’t aged particularly well. With designs that mirror the opera house’s proscenium arch – a replica in the first act, that then lies in tatters for the second, reduced to rubble by the close – Michael Levine’s cool aesthetic does little to raise the temperature in the Venusberg scene, despite some slick choreography (Jasmin Vardimon), and athletic shenanigans from the dancers. But I’ve seen a lot worse, and it remains serviceable – on this occasion providing the backdrop to some fantastic performances. And it goes without saying that William Spaulding’s well-drilled chorus sounded absolutely stunning in all the set pieces.


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