Tannhäuser at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London: Tim Albery (director), Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
Tannhäuser at Covent Garden a musical triumph
Johan Botha as Tannhäuser/Heinrich in Tim Albery's production of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden. Photo: Clive Barda, Royal Opera
Above all, this return to the Royal Opera House of Tannhäuser proved a musical triumph. Semyon Bychkov’s conducting was superior even to that of his Lohengrin last year.
Tannhäuser – Johan Botha
Elisabeth – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Venus – Michaela Schuster
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christian Gerhaher
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Christof Fischesser
Biterolf – Clive Bayley
Walther von der Vogelweide – Timothy Robinson
Heinrich der Schreiber – Steven Ebel
Reimar von Zweter – Jeremy White
Shepherd Boy – Alexander Lee
Tim Albery (director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Jon Morrell (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)
Jasmin Vardimon (choreography)
Maxine Braham (movement)
Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
Bychkov generally took his time, but the score never dragged, given that Wagner’s long line was ever secure – bar the odd occasion when abruptness cannot quite be ironed out of the score. Climaxes were sparing and therefore all the more powerful when they came. Perhaps most importantly of all, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was on superlative form. Brass onstage and off were weightily impressive without brashness. The woodwind choir evoked a Middle Ages that may never actually have existed, but certainly did in Wagner’s imagination. As for the strings, one might well have thought them from Vienna, so beautiful was their sheen. Equally fine was the chorus and extra chorus, properly weighty of tone without undue sacrifice to verbal meaning; Renato Balsadonna had trained them very well.
The cast was excellent too. Johan Botha is that rare thing, a dependable Heldentenor. His interpretation might not be especially novel or variegated, but the vocal reserves on which he can draw seem endless. It is a tough, far from grateful, role to sing, yet Botha surmounted its challenges commendably. Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram could not have been more highly contrasted, providing for an unusually stark dramatic contrast between the characters. This was as variegated, as Lieder-like, a performance as one could imagine – and then more. The sheer beauty of his tone was breathtaking, but even more so were his vocal shading and verbal acuity. I do not think I have ever heard the part, not least ‘O du meiner Abendstern’, so sensitively brought to life. Volume was much less than that of his antagonist, but miraculously one could hear every word; indeed, one might have taken dictation.
Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth in Tim Albery's production of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden. Photo: Clive Barda, Royal Opera
Eva-Maria Westbroek presented an unusually vivid Elisabeth. Saint she might become – though this, not unreasonably, was downplayed – but one could never doubt her very real human desire. This Elisabeth stood closer to Sieglinde or Brünnhilde than would generally be the case, shedding refreshing light upon a character who can readily tend to the implausible. Michaela Schuster dragged Venus – as does Wagner in this ‘Paris’ version of the score – towards Kundry: a powerful, insinuating, yet indubitably feminine portrayal. I have admired Christof Fischesser in a number of roles in Berlin, mostly at the Komische Oper; he did not disappoint here, offering a younger sounding Landgrave than one often hears. The ‘supporting’ cast generally impressed too; special mention should go to Jette Parker Young Artist, Steven Ebel, as Heinrich der Schreiber. The one emendation to the ‘Paris’ version was the reinstatement from Dresden of Walther’s song, quite justified by Timothy Robinson’s rendition. (It was only originally omitted on account of vocal inadequacy.)
I preferred Tim Albery’s production to his Flying Dutchman, though I suspect that this may have been by default. By that, I mean that Albery’s concept of cosseted creativity in the Venusberg, symbolised by a reproduction of the Covent Garden stage’s own proscenium, liberated by release into the outside world, symbolised by a vision of Elisabeth bidding Tannhäuser return, seemed soon to run out of steam, permitted the music more or less to speak for itself, which may not have been the intention.
Eva-Maria Westbroek. Photo: Clive Barda, Royal Opera
I could not understand the relevance for the song contest and the third act of what seemed to be an Eastern European warzone, for which Michael Levine’s set designs and Jon Morrell’s costumes were finely accomplished, but it was not difficult simply to disregard the setting and concentrate upon the work. Nevertheless, the Venusberg to valley transformation worked very well. Jasmin Verdimon’s choreography tied in extremely with the Bacchanale’s frustrating attempts to climax, the dancers lithe and accomplished, whilst the new scene both contrasted with and retained something of the phantasmagorical effect. I was intrigued to find myself asking how ‘real’ this new world actually was – above all for Wagner. However, whilst the addition of distant Mahlerian cowbells was certainly evocative in a far from unwelcome modernistic fashion, I am not convinced that the experiment should be repeated.
Mark Berry is Reader in Music History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously taught and lectured in History at the University of Cambridge. He has written widely on intellectual, cultural, and musical history from the later seventeenth century to the present day. He is the author of Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire: Politics and Religion in Wagner's Ring (2006) and After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from 'Parsifal' to Nono (2014). He will also co-edit the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Wagner's 'Ring'. Further reviews may be found at http://boulezian.blogspot.com.