Royal Opera at Covent Garden, December 11
Perhaps the most popular of Wagner's works during his lifetime, Tannhäuser has nowadays become something of a problem piece, not least because of the difficulty of casting the title role, one of the most mercilessly testing in the repertoire (a great Tristan, Jon Vickers, backed away from it). Among other problems are some frankly dull passages-was Wagner really cut out to write ‘chaste' music? He had no difficulty whatsoever with the opposite. Did he, in either Dresden or Paris, quite find a ‘voice' for Venus? Certainly not in Dresden, and the Paris version of the first scene is compromised by its repetitiveness-a discreet cut of Venus's second attempt to retain her lover would scarcely be noticed, and rather welcome. At this point in his career, Wagner, like Berlioz, had a shaky grasp of stage time-the time needed to convey a dramatic idea in music. And like Berlioz, Wagner could start a most promising melody but not quite see it through. Wolfram's ‘War's Zauber' is one example, and the second-act love duet is another: it starts most beautifully with Elisabeth's ‘Der Sänger klügen Weisen', but gradually descends into autopilot 19th-century banality. Gounod had no difficulties when it came to melody. Enough, Wagnerians can argue all this out to their hearts content, but all will agree that the work gathers momentum from the song contest onwards, and the third act is top-drawer Wagner throughout, pure gold.
Having decided to do this problem piece, the Royal Opera threw everything they had at it. They engaged one of today's most respected and persuasive Wagner conductors, Semyon Bychkov, assembled the best possible cast, and entrusted the staging to Tim Albery, who has a distinguished Wagnerian track record. The result was one of Covent Garden's red-letter days.
Bychkov succeeded in making even some indifferent music sound interesting-the Landgrave's address for once gripped the attention. By some miraculous sleight of baton-wielding hand he defused the March of its proto-fascist associations. His use of rubato was of the utmost subtlety throughout. His choice of tempo was always convincing, moving on in Elisabeth's Prayer, which can drag dangerously, and risking a near-adagio for Wolfram‘s ‘Blick ich umher' but making it work. The climax to the second-act concertato was shattering, and it is not easy with its danger of premature ejaculation. Not here, and the earth moved. He ensured perfect balance with the stage, with the words always audible. Above all he drew outstanding playing from the orchestra, and the contribution of Renato Balsadonna's chorus, the men much augmented, set the seal on a musical performance in a thousand.
Johan Botha's Tannhäuser was near-unbelievable. He made it sound easy, his athletic, silvery tone as fresh at the end as it had been at the beginning, and he seemed unfazed even by his fiendishly treacherous solo in the concertato. The hypercritical might ask for more variety of timbre and dynamic, but he started to field both to great effect in his Rome Narration, and doubtless will throughout at later performances.
Eva-Maria Westbroek's spirit and elan were just right for a 21st-century Elisabeth, a role that has shed all its potential pi-ness and milksoppery, just as Micaëla has. Michaela Schuster did all she could-a lot-with Venus, one of the most unrewarding of operatic roles. Christof Fischesser was a fine, albeit baritonal Landgrave, and the minstrels were all good, with Timothy Robinson almost making the restoration of Walther's solo seem like a good idea (we were given the 1875, Vienna version, i.e. just about every note Wagner wrote). But the classiest singing qua singing came from Christian Gerhaher, making his house debut as Wolfram. A Lieder singer's attention to words and their meaning, a wide range of dynamic and tone-colour, and a basically beautiful sound-a perfectly lovely performance. More, please.
Albery doesn't acknowledge ‘problems'-after all, his first opera in this country was the famously impossible Midsummer Marriage (1985), still the best manifestation of that work to date. His and his designer Michael Levine's contemporary setting somewhere in Eastern Europe, with costumes by Jon Morrell, worked perfectly well, even if the gun-toting Thuringian soldiers did not seem to be the sort to be outraged by the mere mention of Venus. The wars mentioned by the Landgrave were plainly quite recent, if not unfinished.
To depict the Venusberg as the Royal Opera House, or more specifically its stage, was agreeably disrespectful, and I trust the stagehands' unions won't sue for libel. But the Venusberg is the occasion for a real problem: Wagner's music depicting sexual activity is almost as good as the real thing, if not better, as are Tchaikovsky's encoded grand pas de deux. I don't believe it is possible to match the music visually, and few stagings avoid embarrassment. Here, dinner-jacketed chaps getting their kit off (or most of it), tarty ladies ditto and all rollocking about was either too little or too much, according to taste. Was this, I wondered, how the Bullingdon Club spent their evenings? Probably not, as I think they did without gels.
Seriously, Albery simply, unobtrusively directed the piece and the singers. Botha may not be the Laurence Olivier of tenors, but with Albery's help he presented an entirely believable protagonist. An evening to remember, and cherish.