Tannhäuser Royal Opera House 7 February 2023
The opening sounds of the familiar overture allayed my initial annoyance that the principal Stefan Vinke was indisposed and would be acting but not singing with Norbert Ernst singing the role from the side of the stage. This happened at Glyndebourne last year at The Wreckers and while you do become engaged with the music and the occasion, I wonder if there shouldn’t be an operatic equivalent of the rail companies’ delay-repay schemes when this happens and you don’t get the full experience you paid for.
Such negative thoughts were eliminated completely during the Venusberg orgy scene something which Wagner added to the origianl 1845 version later for the Paris version – “to satisfy Parisian tastes” – thank goodness! In some of the most adventurous, erotic and athletic dancing I’ve ever seen, six couples perfectly executed the thrilling choreography of Jasmin Vardimon, whose Alice had enchanted me at Sadler’s Wells last autumn. Before Venus (Ekaterina Gubanova – we were also warned she was under the weather but would struggle on) uttered a note I felt the ticket price was almost paid for by the opening music and its balletic interpretation. Ekaterina was good – all sinuous, slinky seductress such that you could understand why poor Heinrich (Tannhäuser) had stayed in the Underworld for a year.
However even the good things must run their course and he decides he must leave Venusberg and return to his old life as a knight in Wartburg. His line “from this place I now must flee to strife and struggle” made me think ‘Welcome to Britain 2023’.
Back in the real world he is welcomed home by some of his colleagues, particularly Wolfram – a brilliant performance by Gerald Finley – soon to have to relinquish his unrequited love for Elisabeth. She makes a fleeting appearance inviting Heinrich back into the courtly world of singing contests to win her hand. There are many fine performances from the less prominent characters and I’ll just single out the shepherd boy sung by Jette Parker artist Sarah Dufresne and the Landgrave of Mika Kares.
But from now on it’s the Elisabeth show and wow does Lise Davidsen make it a thrilling evening. I thought her opening phrases were a little shrill but then she settled into a magnificent interpretation of the role with its expressions of love and hope and her later anguish and despair as she fears Heinrich has not returned from Rome. And despite a few odd moments in the orchestra under the baton of Sebastian Weigle it also settled into this at times lush, at others wonderfully melodic and ultimately dramatic score. Harpists usually have a quiet night but not in Tannhäuser – they certainly earned their fees tonight, especially during the song contest scenes.
The will he/won’t he get redemption for his transgressive behaviour plotline unfolds brilliantly in the music and Heinrich’s haggard return, unpardoned by the pope, where he learns of Elisabeth’s death is a moment of great bathos – I forgot for a moment that it wasn’t Vinke singing. And then on to the end. The Pilgrim’s Chorus is much played in isolation as it is just such a fabulous piece of writing. With the ROH chorus in magnificent form it was hard to know which of them were on or off stage from the pianissimo start of the chorus which swells so dramatically to its ecstatic climax with the children’s choir added to the mix. The applause was sudden and spontaneous as this complex opera reached its wonderful conclusion – maybe a bit wishful thinking today that good will triumph over evil – bur Richard was a romantic. In conversations on the way out it was clear that we had all had – after expectations were lowered at the start with two singers unwell – an absolutely brilliant night at the opera.