Donald Runnicles
Concert Association of the Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
4 August 2013
Royal Albert Hall London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannAin Anger
TannhäuserRobert Dean Smith
Wolfram von EschenbachChristoph Pohl
Walther von der VogelweideThomas Blondelle
BiterolfAshley Holland
Heinrich der SchreiberAndrew Rees
Reinmar von ZweterBrian Bannatyne-Scott
ElisabethHeidi Melton
VenusDaniela Sindram
Ein junger HirtHila Fahima

Within a Proms season dominated by Wagner in general and his later music-dramas in particular, it is good that the earlier Romantic operas have not been neglected and Tannhäuser was an ideal choice in terms of its being an introduction to the composer. Certainly an earlier generation of Proms audiences would have been familiar with it through extracts – the Overture alone is reckoned to have been performed at these concerts around 300 times – though this was the first occasion on which the three-hour work had been given in its entirety. The outcome, for the most part, was a powerful as well as a convincing account of what, for all its musical accessibility, is not unreasonably seen as Wagner’s most problematic opera.

Presenting the piece was itself not easy, but Justin Way proved equal to the task – giving the singers a decent amount of room to manoeuvre without resorting to needless stage effects, while the spatial placement of offstage voices and brass made full use of the potential of the Royal Albert Hall’s Choir and Gallery areas. Nor was lighting at all intrusive, extending merely to an evoking of scene changes using the wraparound at the top of the stage, but it is a pity a practicable solution to the use of surtitles has not been found, as having the full libretto printed in the programme only abets the page-turning which can be intrusive during quieter passages. As a concert presentation, though, this could hardly have been bettered.

Robert Dean Smith as Tannhäuser in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris Christodoulou The casting as a whole had few flaws. While he is no stranger to the title-role, Robert Dean Smith took time to settle – his increasingly fraught exchanges with Venus evincing a shrillness as if to suggest she might hardly have objected to his leaving, though his fervency at the realisation of his return to the Wartburg was undoubted, while his exchanges with the minstrels had an easy warmth. His increasingly forceful interjections during the song-contest verged on the hectoring, though, but there was no doubt as to his eloquence during the lengthy recounting of his pilgrimage which dominates the final Act. Tannhäuser is far from the most perfectly conceived of Wagner’s Heldentenor roles, but Robert Dean Smith ultimately had its measure. That said it was Heidi Melton’s Elizabeth which proved the highlight in vocal terms. Right from her greeting at the start of the second Act, she conveyed the joy yet also the poignancy of one who was previously betrayed and whose fear of betrayal is not easily overcome. Less wilful than Senta and less unworldly than Elsa, hers is the most conventional but also the most compassionate of Wagner’s earlier female roles – not least in her dialogue with Wolfram in the third Act, when the comprehension that Tannhäuser has not returned with the Pilgrims effectively seals her fate. In her assumption of the role, Melton amply secured the listener’s empathy – and as Wagner-singing per se, this was as good as it gets in the present era.

Heidi Melton as Elisabeth and Robert Dean Smith as Tannhäuser in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris Christodoulou While her role is largely restricted to the first Act, Daniela Sindram was a Venus imperious and cajoling in equal measure. Christoph Pohl’s Wolfram conveyed the requisite wisdom when his integrity is attacked in the song-contest and brought beneficent calm to his exchanges with Elizabeth, capped by an easeful rendering of ‘Song to the Evening Star’. If lacking authority as the Landgrave, Ain Anger sang with evident sincerity, while Thomas Blondelle made the most of Walther’s often-omitted aria. Ashley Holland brought self-righteous indignation to Biterolf, though Hila Fahima’s Shepherd Boy – while effortlessly sung – had an inappropriate sensuousness such as underlined why this cameo is best tackled by a treble. The performance was fortunate indeed to be able to call on the services of the Chorus of Deutsche Oper. Tannhäuser features some of Wagner’s most extensive as well as intricately polyphonic choral writing – coming as it does from a time when the composer produced several fine choral pieces while Kapellmeister to the Saxon court – and the present performers were as alive to the robust music for the guests in the Wartburg as to the fervency of the Pilgrims’ choruses. Not that the orchestral response was at all lacking, the BBC Scottish Symphony evincing a textural clarity and tonal warmth as consistently impressive as were the various instrumental solos: this was playing of a high order.

Donald Runnicles conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris Christodoulou In which respect, the contribution of Donald Runnicles cannot be gainsaid. Among the most adept Wagner conductor of his generation, he defined the opera’s twin poles of transcendence and abandon from the outset; others have been even more uninhibited in the Venusberg music, but few have directed it with such control and attention to detail. Those set-pieces such as the ‘Entry of the Guests’ had breadth and impetus, while momentum during the full-length version of the song-contest was palpably maintained. Nor was there any lack of dramatic focus over the final Act, which reached its thrilling climax when the miracle of the Pope’s staff is told and the desired redemption of the main protagonist comes to pass.

Performing Tannhäuser in an edition “based on the 1875 version, with additions from the 1845 Dresden version” (to quote the programme) ensured as full a text as is plausible while conveying the extent of the revisions that Wagner made for the disastrous Paris staging of 1861. Tannhäuser is the most imperfect of his stage-works in terms of dramatic continuity, yet it embodies the essence of German mid-Romanticism to a greater extent than does any other opera of the period, besides containing some of Wagner’s most immediately appealing music. Its revival here could not have been more worthwhile.

Richard Whitehouse | Sunday, August 04, 2013 Royal Albert Hall, London


Tannhäuser was the first of Wagner’s operas to gain widespread popularity: the Victorian sensibility could engage with its musings on the relative claims of wanton sensuality and religiose asceticism in an artist’s moral life. But this is scarcely an urgent modern dilemma, and an opera once considered staple repertory has now become something of a rarity, exposed in only two new productions in Britain over the last quarter-century.

Surprisingly, this was its first complete airing at the Proms, although the overture and bacchanal have featured since the earliest days. The performance proved a great success, with the reliable Donald Runnicles conducting a well-paced and warmly shaped reading that knocked the stuffing out of a score that Wagner fiddled with incessantly in the knowledge that he hadn’t got it quite right.

Those of us lucky enough to have experienced the Barenboim Ring may have found it hard not to miss the Berliners’ velvet strings and effortless brass, but the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra rose to the occasion manfully, playing even more intensely at the end of the evening than it had at the beginning.

The soloists also warmed to their tasks: Robert Dean Smith’s Tannhäuser seemed well past the first flush of youth in his initial grappling with Daniela Sindram’s predatory Venus, and his unseductive entry to the Wartburg song contest certainly didn’t set my heart fluttering.

But his long third-act account of his pilgrimage to Rome was delivered with heroic dignity, and there’s a staunch quality to his singing of this very demanding role that commands admiration.

As his rival Wolfram, Christoph Pohl sang firmly and cleanly, bringing a taut lyrical line to his rapt address to the evening star. A striking Estonian bass with the splendid name of Ain Anger made a grand impression as the Landgrave, and the ample-voiced Heidi Melton sang Elisabeth’s hymn to the Virgin of the Jungfrau with chaste nobility and shining tone. Hila Fahima’s wistful Shepherd Boy was also worthy of note.

But it was the glorious chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (where Runnicles is music director, competing with Barenboim’s Staatsoper) that brought a lump to my throat. As sirens, pilgrims and miscellaneous nobility, they ran the gamut from airy pianissimo to thundering fortissimo and never produced an ugly sound or the hint of a quaver. Deservedly, they earned the loudest ovation of the evening.

Rupert Christiansen | 05 Aug 2013


Donald Runnicles, chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, is also general music director at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, and for his Prom performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser he combined both jobs by using his Glasgow-based orchestra and his German chorus. The latter proved to be the heroes of the evening.

The work is dominated by its choruses, which throw the psychological crises of its protagonists into sharp relief and underscore the opera’s wider conflict between sex and spirit. Everything here was wonderfully characterised and controlled. The grand but vacuous processionals at the Landgrave’s court offset the Pilgrims’ unsentimental fervour and the sated languor of Venus’s nymphs. The richness of tone was exceptional, the ecstatic quality of the final scenes breathtaking. Revelatory stuff, it earned the chorus the most enthusiastic reception of the evening.

Much of the rest was comparably glorious. Wagner never produced a definitive score of Tannhäuser; Runnicles gave us the fullest possible version, using the so-called Paris score, but also restoring the cuts Wagner made to the 1845 original. Interpretatively, he doesn’t go to extremes after the fashion of Keilberth or Solti, though he illuminates the complex relationship between flesh and spirit with great finesse. The playing was beautifully clear and sensuous.

Vocally, things were uneven, the principal drawback being Robert Dean Smith’s Tannhäuser. As always, you admire his stamina, and Runnicles, careful with balance in Wagner, never allowed the BBCSSO to drown him out. But he sounded tired, and there were moments of ungainliness in his duet with Heidi Melton’s finely sung (if at times undercharacterised) Elisabeth. The great performances came from Christoph Pohl’s handsomely lyrical Wolfram, Daniela Sindram’s manipulative Venus and Ain Anger’s moralistic Hermann, all of them exceptional.

Tim Ashley | Monday 5 August 2013


More Wagner: after the extremes of excellence of Barenboim’s Ring – certainly in reference to the orchestral contributions – here was a very different affair. Not that this was a bad performance at all. However, the music did not scale the same heights and the BBC Scottish orchestra, whatever its merits, cannot compete with the Staatskapelle Berlin. Yet Runnicles, chief conductor of the Scottish orchestra, is also general music director of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin and he brought with him their chorus; and as fine a group of singers it is difficult to imagine. The Chorus of Sirens (way up in the Gallery) was simply luscious, while the Pilgrims demonstrated just how beautiful male voices can sound.

It is fair to say, I think, that Runnicles can be mentioned in the same breath as Barenboim. He is no stranger to Wagner at the Proms, and he understands how, even in this much earlier work, the music of Wagner breathes, not only in the long phrases but over larger spans, too.. The brass were supremely balanced in the overture, clearly the result of careful rehearsal. The sense of the dramatic was clearly set out here; the Weber-like shimmerings set against the heavy brass statements so predictive of later Wagner; the aching, sighing string gestures seemingly linked to the eroticism of the Venusberg. The off-stage brass constituted one of the more impressive elements of the entire evening. Tannhäuser suffers from musicological issues. Runnicles opted for the long plan, choosing the 1875 Vienna version, yet interpolating sections from the 1845 Dresden score. His belief in his strategy shone through the reading, and it was Runnicles’ conducting that enabled the evening to attain success.

Way back in 2001, I reviewed an Arte Nova disc showcasing Robert Dean Smith. The review was less than complementary, and despite Dean’s now-glowing curriculum vitae – including stepping in at the Proms Tristan this year – it remains difficult to muster great enthusiasm. Smith can project well, and has most of the reserves this taxing role demands. Certainly at times he gave the impression he could sing until his head fell off, attaining a near-Heldentenor strength in the final moments of the first act. His Rome Narration was a wonder of stamina – and was illuminated from within by Runnicles’ contribution. Yet his acting is simply risible. Stiff and uncomfortable, he would be more at home in an Australian soap opera. That means that the only way to convince us, the listeners, of his assumption of the title role was via his voice. His tuning is not always spot on, though, and he was rather eclipsed in the second scene of Act 1 by his Venus, the Proms debut artist and creamy-voiced German mezzo Daniela Sindram, who made her role debut as Venus last year at the Bavarian State Opera. Sindram’s legato over long melodies was a thing of wonder, and frankly it was always a bit of a relief when it was her turn to sing in the long exchanges of the first act. Her temptress lines, “Geliebter! Komm, sieh dort die Grotte” found her miraculously floating notes, casting a proper spell. Her anger, too, was most believable (“Zieh hin, Wahnbetörter!”), her outbursts demonstrating that both ends of her vocal range are equally secure.

We have to wait until the second act to hear the Elisabeth, a role here sung by Adler Fellow of San Francisco Opera, soprano Heidi Melton. Her “Dich, teure Halle” was preceded by an orchestra that found itself so almost together. Melton has a big voice, as her opening of “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau” showed, but one with a pleasingly fresh tone. She was a believable Elisabeth, also, excelling in her placatory passages towards the end of the second act.

As the Langrave, Estonian bass Ain Anger, another Proms debut artist, was commendably solid and confident – he has sung this role at the Deutsche Oper. His speech in Act 2 Scene 4 (“Gar viel und schön ward hier in dieser Halle”) was strong and eloquent. Thomas Blondelle was a lusty Walther von der Vogelweide, his strength underlining what would appear to be some weakness in Smith’s voice during the second act. Christoph Pohl has appeared as Wolfram at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, and he obviously lived the role. His “Wie Todesahnung” was beautifully dark, his legato at “O du, mein holder Abendstern” absolutely lovely. Hila Fahim was an effective (female) Shepherd Boy,. She sang from the level of the organ while the cor anglais was situated up the stairs to the side.

There was not really a weak link in the cast as such, and the BBC Scottish orchestra impressed throughout – is this really the same ensemble I looked down on in the early 1980s? Well, clearly not. In summary, a far from perfect evening but a notably enjoyable one, nonetheless.

Colin Clarke | August 8, 2013

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere, PO
Technical Specifications
224 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 300 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast of a concert performance
Performed in an edition “based on the 1875 version, with additions from the 1845 Dresden version”