This was such an eagerly-anticipated evening. A belated 50th birthday present from a friend to my partner; a Wagner opera that was so easy and well-known in terms of the tunes, but promised something more complex in performance; and those near-rave reviews. You can add to that, that the particular subject of the raving was Christian Gerhaher, performer of Wolfram and, therefore, singer of O du mein holder Abendstern in Act 3: the music to which we swapped our Civil Partnership rings and signed the register.
This explains the irritation – no, anger! – that was occasioned by the announcement from the stage – not from a slip in the programme, mind you – of the delay of Christian Gerhaher in his return from Munich. We had an account of the journey – delayed flights, faulty planes (or trains, can’t remember which) and a delayed Eurostar from Paris. It stopped short of anyone’s dog eating the tickets. The real cause of annoyance (I may have let out a little ‘boo’ at the Company Manager making the announcement) was that there was no straightforward replacement. It wasn’t that misfortune had befallen the understudy: there apparently was no understudy. So we had that dismal alternative: the singer from the side of the stage whilst the Staff Director ‘walked the part’.
So, two questions: why was there no understudy? Isn’t that part of the much bally-hoo’d high cost of opera production? Seemingly not. The singer – Daniel Grice of the Young Artists – was actually very good indeed, vocally. With such a static production, why could he not have been marking Gerhaher at rehearsals so that he could go on properly? Because, to be very clear, I understand that these things happen, but it is absolutely not an acceptable alternative (in a house of this stature, other than absolutely in extremis) to have a static singer, singing from the score, with a ‘cipher’ in his place on stage. It does not work. It punches a massive hole in dramatic engagement.
Right, rant over. Because it was actually quite a remarkable performance.
What to make of Tim Albery’s production? Act 1 had replicas of the ROH proscenium and curtain for both Venusburg and the Hall of Song; by act 2 it had collapsed across the stage, the curtain now draping the stepped stage in a sort of spillage of architectural blood; in act 3, the ruins had all but faded into the ground (which in 6 months of Tannhäuser’s pilgramage suggests a rather aggressive atmosphere). The staging was largely static, but these stage pictures were remarkably effective indeed, and there was a minimum of extraneous intrusion.
What is this about? The decay of art, or more specifically perhaps the risk that, if the major artistic institutions wither, then art will only survive in a more primitive form, in the service of patriotism and tribal ritual? I’m not sure, but it certainly was a powerful image of the collapsed and smashed Royal Opera House proscenium. And act 3’s ruins were eerily similar to the Barking Abbey ruins, just a trace in the ground. This worked to good effect, and largely because Michael Levine had executed it with such detail and assurance. The images were quite chilling: what will we gather to do in the place where once the Royal Opera House stood?
(That said, I could probably have accomplished the same task, bare-handed and quite happily, until I’d calmed down about 20mins into act 1…)
Whatever the politics (and it is certainly tempting to read a bit of arts-cutting Coalition-bashing into the staging!), the use of the same set for the opening Venusberg and the Hall of Song was a bit of a mistake, adding to our collective puzzlement. The Bacchanale appeared to be a Busby Berkeley number, if Busby Berkeley had taken an interest in Christopher Isherwood, and its power lay in its overall stage ‘sweep’, full of frenetic tumbling and writhing. It’s to its credit that, despite considerable provocation from the lithe, young shirtless men, I resisted the urge to get too busy with my binoculars.
The greatest facet of the production – that helped the stage pictures to take flight – centred on the lighting. Quite remarkable changes of mood were delivered and, as an example, Elisabeth’s departure (by fading into the inky black background) was astonishingly well-accomplished. A slight downside was that too much of the workings were visible from Amphi and, probably, from the Balcony too, especially the hydraulics that dropped huge chunks of the stage (cue Venus hopping off her bed and making a dash for it).
So, to the performances. What to say of Johan Botha’s Tannhäuser? Does the bulk matter? Well, yes, initially – it takes some suspension of disbelief when he is contrasted with the dancers of the Venusberg, and on the receiving end of Venus’s sultry taunts. But the concerns do wane as the drama unfolds, and he was at his dramatic best in Act 3. He’s got the notes, but I did find his tone a little ‘bleaty’ for my tastes over the long evening. However, anyone who can stay the course deserves accolades and, some slight wearing aside, he certainly did. Is the production static because he’s static? He certainly never strayed far from a chair or ledge, but who knows? So, some dramatic doubts aside, but I have seen and heard far, far worse heldentenor performances.
Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Elisabeth was a more assured and complete performance, with dramatic skill married to an astonishing full-on projection. If some sweetness would have helped those opening lines of Dich, teure Halle, well, it was a minor matter. From her dramatic declamations in act 2, and her tender and intense performance of her prayer in act 3, her committed vocal and dramatic delivery were winning. It’s a thankless role, in all its dour pontification, but she sustained sympathy to the end. The bit where she says ‘Listen to me; hear God speak through me!” suggests someone who has a rather high – and certainly not humble – opinion of themselves. Wagner’s problem, not Westbroek’s.
And her rival? I am fast developing as a hardcore fan of Michaela Schuster. I think she is a tremendous artist: a secure, rich instrument, in the service of a very sound dramatic sense. A treat in these ‘second’ – but no less hefty – roles. Her Venus was sensuous, slinky, petulant, combative, and a real contrast with Elizabeth. One reviewer suggested that ‘Elisabeth chose wrong man’ – well, after all that crashing dourness from Elisabeth, did Tannhäuser choose wrong woman?
And that brings us, in the vocal honours, to Christian Gerhaher. You see, he made it for act 3: Abendstern victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. Which is not to decry Daniel Grice’s stand-in Wolfram at all; he had an attractive tone, rose to some dramatic inflection which cannot have been easy as a last-minute stand-in, and I would not have been unhappy to hear him perform. Just not from a lectern by the proscenium. Anyway, with due credit to Daniel Grice, might I return to the main subject? If ever I were tempted to write “O. M. G.” in a blog, this is the time. Act 3 was Gerhaher’s. I have never experienced such vocal immediacy combined with such intimacy; sure assured projection under such fine, nuanced control. The tone was warm, plangent and everything the ‘philosopher’ Wolfram should be. O du, mein holder Abendstern was the most remarkable thing I have heard in many a performance at Covent Garden, and a particularly consumptive matinee audience clearly agreed, as the auditorium’s stillness made way for the elegant thread of tone that Gerhaher poured forth. I simply can’t praise it highly enough.
Others to mention? Clive Bayley was a fantastically detailed Biterolf. The Shepherd Boy was Alexander Lee (real boy rather than small soprano), which brought something to proceedings, but I’m not quite sure what, particularly as he provoked nervousness by clambering around on a small island, complete with a tree, six feet above a trench on the stage. Not sure it worked, but a valiant performance.
All the reviews have similarly praised Semyon Bychkov. Again, a remarkable contribution. In particular, act 3 was revealed in all its genius, Bychkov spinning out the details so that the ‘recitative/aria’ structure that can sometimes creep in was held thoroughly in abeyance. The unfolding music drama was held together by the long span, rather than hopping to individual numbers, and felt like the precursor to the Bühnenweihfestspiel construction of Parsifal. Act 1, under the same treatment was slightly less successful, needing more straightforward red-blooded oomph. I had not enjoyed his Lohengrin as much as others (which seemed like heresy at the time); this Tannhäuser was a revelation. The long acts built to extraordinary climaxes. The orchestra responded with complete commitment – beautiful woodwinds, cushioned by astonishing strings and punctuated by secure and thrilling brass playing. Heaven.
Overall? Well, this was a thought-through (but not entirely lucid) production of a deeply problematic story. As such, we were given enough to ponder, and our group couldn’t stop dissecting it afterwards, but ultimately the narrative still palls somewhat. The madonna/whore dichotomy is a bit crude. “A crime has been committed!” shouts Christian Fischesser’s Landgrave towards the end of act 2, referring to Tannhäuser’s singing of a lewd song. Yes, I wanted to respond, there is someone on this stage who has actually had some fun. This is supported overall by some sudden gear-shifts in hurried dramatic moments, whilst moments of introspection are given considerable space but don’t quite take flight as they do in the Ring or Tristan.
Anyway, it was given such an astonishing vocal, dramatic and visual performance, I was hooked. As that last chorus blasted out the opening themes of the overture, it was thrilling. I may not have been entirely ‘there’ all the way through, but I never strayed far. And, when engaged, it was thrilling and moving by turns. And for the clunky story that is Wagner’s Tannhäuser, could there be higher praise?
We went again – in Upper Slips seats – on Thursday 30 January. Every bit as stunning as the first time, with the added benefit of Mr Gerhaher all the way through. I had no further insights into the production, but I do like it. I think it is relatively low-intervention (as these things go) and tells a story with some striking images. All singers were on excellent form. Bliss.