mon 24/06/2024

Tannhäuser, Royal Opera review - true goodness triumphs in the end | reviews, news & interviews

Tannhäuser, Royal Opera review - true goodness triumphs in the end

Tannhäuser, Royal Opera review - true goodness triumphs in the end

Lise Davidsen's fully-realised Elisabeth is no pallid virgin in this mixed revival

Gerald Finley's Wolfram tries to console Lise Davidsen's stricken ElisabethAll images by Clive Barda

It’s always a disappointment when the Venusberg orgy Wagner added in 1861 to his original, 1845 Tannhäuser to suit Parisian tastes gives way to foursquare operatic conventions. Especially so in this revival of Tim Albery’s 2010 production, where Jasmin Vardimon’s choreography (pictured below) seems executed with more brilliance than ever and post-viral vocal problems loomed large last night for this hero.

The static nature of the rest of the evening, though, - Wagner’s problem, accentuated by Albery, though his living tableaux are well managed - is redeemed by exceptional singing-acting from Lisa Davidsen and Gerald Finley, matched by exquisite colours in Act Three from the Royal Opera Orchestra under Sebastian Weigle, a helpfully stage-conscious conductor already distinguished by fine recordings of Strauss and early Wagner from Frankfurt. Ballet in Royal Opera TannhauserFrom the beginning of Act Two onwards, the opera could be called Elisabeth rather than Tannhäuser, at least in Davidsen’s fully-rounded characterisation. She doesn’t have glowing surroundings to react to; it looks as if the war which the Landgave announces as over, in ideally authoritative bass tones from Mika Kares, still afflicts a decimated Wartburg. But her almost girlish raptures about Tannhauser’s return, true love, it seems, are all the more powerful when he bursts out at the song-competition in praise of the sensual pleasures he’s experienced. Davidsen’s is no pallid virgin. The impact as expressed in her powerful physical reaction makes this seem like a rape; the fellow songsters’ tributes to sacred love may have come across as wet and weedy – though three harps and tenor Egor Zhuravskii, recently graduated from the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, do their very best to gild insipid music – but the polar opposite really does seem like more than a slap in the face.

We feel at a visceral level the sheer effort of Elisabeth’s pleading for Tannhäuser to do penance and seek salvation; the powerful ensemble has even more of an impact as a result. And we sense a woman longing only for death in the Act Three prayer. This wonderful sequence which enfolds it, vintage Wagner by any standards, comes with perfect playing from Royal Opera horns – also carefully articulating in the Overture – and woodwind, and as finely sung a hymn to the evening star from Gerald Finley’s Wolfram as you could hope to hear (which is saying something when Christian Gerhaher stole the show in 2010). Stefan Vinke as TannhauserVeteran, battle-scarred heroic tenor Stefan Vinke impresses in a different way as the minstrel with the divided soul (pictured above). At Sunday’s first performance, he was ailing, the part sung from the side of the stage while he acted it out. Last night, in the hard-to-love interchanges with Ekaterina Gubanova’s serviceable Venus, the voice turned to pure gravel in the second of his song-apostrophes to carnal love. But it recovered, and despite the dread occasioned by an announcement at the beginning of Act Two that he was continuing in adverse circumstances, everything rang out at the song competition and he got through the narrative of the Pope’s refusal to pardon such a sinner in Act Three. You didn’t get the sense that this was a soul in agony, but Vinke may have been marshalling his resources.

Act Three’s other glory was the Pilgrims’ Chorus, so quiet when the Royal Opera singers came on stage that I couldn’t tell if there were still more in the wings. Kudos to the lusty-voiced children at the end, too – uncredited in the programme, unless I’m much mistaken – and to the shepherd-boy of Jette Parker newcomer Sarah Dufresne, managing to mix treble sounds with real lyric-soprano beauty. The circumstances were top quality, and I liked Albery’s production more, even if I still don’t quite grasp the Venusberg as meta-theatre behind a second set of Royal Opera proscenium arch and curtains;  our very own gateway to hell, perhaps? And though this is the ultimate bad-binary opera – sensuality bad, holy love good – it left me feeling more whole than I’d expected during the longueurs of the first act.

We feel at a visceral level the sheer effort of Elisabeth’s pleading for Tannhäuser to do penance and seek salvation


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Wonderfully said. Just one correction, it's Sebastian Weigle, not Stefan. I was particularly impressed by his handling of the quieter sections. The sound was soft but it never lost body or intensity.

Thanks - I'll correct that. Brainslip. Sorry that the take on Weigle has generally been a bit so-what, because like you I thought his handling of timbre was masterful, right from the start of the Overture.

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