Whenever the German baritone Christian Gerhaher sang, Wagner's problematic opera made perfect sense, says Rupert Christiansen
Wagnernever squared the circle ofTannhäuser, repeatedly fiddling and fussing with the score – he was still minded to make further alterations when he died in 1883. He certainly should have re-written the protracted climax to the second act, which remains a clumsy old mess of grand opera cliché.
Tim Alberyhas returned to revivehis 2010 stagingof this rough-edged and ill-proportioned drama. Dominated by a mood of gloomy minimal austerity, its only ostentatious gesture is the introduction of a falseCovent Gardenproscenium indicating that Venusberg is an opera house, presided over by Venus as its sultry prima donna. So are we meant to think that Tannhäuser is in erotic thrall to his art rather the sexual act? Jasmin Vardimon’s faintly risible and overly strenuous choreography for the orgy is certainly not much of a turn-on.
The second act shows this proscenium reduced to rubble, and the singing contest becomes an exercise in post-war cultural reconstruction (at least it wasn’t presented as a Simon Cowell talent show). The third act is plain bleak, and underlit. Throughout, however, Albery allows the characters to move simply and expressively: although nothing is strikingly illuminated, there’s nothing to object to.
Hartmut Haenchen conducted. A seasoned veteran of the old school with a solid Middle European reputation, he avoided the temptation to solemn pomposity and opted instead for lightweight clarity, reminding us that this is music written by a young man, the heir to Weber and the contemporary of Nicolai and Marschner. The orchestra played with bright vivacity and precision, and the singers were never drowned out. The sum of it was a most attractive interpretation.
Any tenor singing the title-role has my warm sympathy: it makes cruel demands and offers few rewards: the late, trumpet-voiced Jon Vickers pretended he didn’t want to undertake it on moral grounds, but in truth even this mighty Heldentenor was terrified of its rocky passages, trickier to negotiate in some respects than anything in Tristan or Siegfried.
At Covent Garden, the sterling and unflappable Peter Seiffert seemed out of sorts, but determined to persevere: he sang consistently flat in the first act, recovered his pitch somewhat in the second, but struggled through bad patches of hoarseness through the Rome narration in the third. For sheer doggedness, I take my hat off to him none the less.
Emma Bell lacks the virginal tonal purity for Elisabeth’s two arias, but she looked wonderful, acted sensitively and was at her impassioned best in the latter half of Act 2. The audience acclaimed her with special warmth.
Sophie Koch made a cool and elegant Venus, Stephen Milling a commanding Hermann. Among Tannhäuser’s rivals, Ed Lyon (whose voice has taken an interesting turn for the stronger in the last year or so) briefly caught the ear as a forthright Vogelweide. The augmented chorus made a mighty soul-stirring noise as both the Wartburg’s welcoming guests and the chastened returning pilgrims.
But it wasChristian Gerhaherwhose Wolfram lifted the evening to greatness. The enchanted beauty of the German baritone’s ode to the evening star, his virile firmness of line and engagement with the text, underpinned with poised musicality and total steadiness of emission, were all exemplary. Whenever he was singing, this problematic and turbulent opera seemed to make serenely perfect sense.