Tannhäuser

Colin Davis
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Date/Location
8 October 1984
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
HermannFritz Hübner
TannhäuserSpas Wenkoff
Wolfram von EschenbachThomas Allen
Walther von der VogelweideHorst R. Laubenthal
BiterolfJohn Gibbs
Heinrich der SchreiberKim Begley
Reinmar von ZweterRoderick Earle
ElisabethGwyneth Jones
VenusEva Randová
Ein junger HirtNicholas Sillitoe
Gallery
Reviews
Opera

Tannhauser. Royal Opera at Covent Garden, September 25

The announcement of this new production as being ‘the Dresden version’ gave warning that it would be without the extended Venusberg music and its Bacchanal. Unfortunately the `withouts’ did not stop there. Instead of pictorial scenery, a bare circular platform was already exposed as the audience entered the theatre. The view was closed off by a semicircular cyclorama—abstract in the first act, but indented in the second for a ludicrously isolated gothic arch. (Timothy O’Brien was the designer.) At the Venusberg there were no sirens, no Bacchantes, no languor, no joy. Grotesque, white-faced, expressionless, two pairs of dancers went through a routine of various positions of coitus. It was possible with some effort to see Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography as representing the monstrous, mechanical sexuality to which Venus’s realm has reduced itself in the mind of the disgusted Tannhauser. But that is not what Wagner’s music—not to mention his stage directions—is about.

It seemed from the opening scene as though a further lack was threatened: good singing. Klaus KOnig spread Tannhauser’s notes uncomfortably, and Eva Randova as Venus not only had a knack of hitting the note just off-pitch but maintained an almost unvarying level of intensity with no reserve to shape the climaxes. Relief arrived with the shepherd-boy (young Nicholas Sillitoe, admirable) and of the Landgrave and his nobles. Of these, Thomas Allen was an excellent, wholly persuasive Wolfram: it was indeed clear by the end of the evening that his was the hero’s part. Granted that Mr Konig improved, but neither his voice nor his dramatic role was helped by his apologetic, hunched stance, less like an over-passionate knight than a Dickensian shop-clerk who has pilfered a few pence from the till and is very, very sorry. Banished from the scenery, history re-emerged in Luciana Arrighi’s costumes in medieval style. An odd exception was Venus’s slinky, spangled, modern-looking, V-cut gown, and odder still were her high-heeled shoes. She wore her fair hair in a mop, while Elisabeth (white-clad at first, but with an alarmingly nun-like look later on) had her fair hair neatly bound or covered. With such obvious symbolism, and with routine gestures and little sense of movement, Elijah Moshinsky as producer seemed strangely contented. In the dully contrived procession to the singing-contest, the lack of dramatic representation was typified by a small but important point. Wagner placed his off-stage trumpets behind the scenes (‘as though in the courtyard of the castle’), but here the players were in high boxes in the auditorium, visible to the audience and outside the action altogether. At the moment when Tannhanser made his scandalous confession that he had been consorting with Venus, a group of nuns from the crowd ran suddenly in front of him: it seemed a conspicuous example of ‘Come on, let’s have some movement here’. Gwyneth Jones gave a distinguished performance as Elisabeth. I admit a preference for a lighter voice in this role—a Mozart/Schubert singer ‘pushed’ rather than a Turandot under restraint—but here was radiant vocalization wedded to positive expression of both music and words, even though an occasional high A flat or B flat stood out unduly. A sturdy, not very princely Landgrave came from Fritz Htibner, well supported by Kim Begley (Heinrich der Schreiber), Roderick Earle (Reinmar) and John Gibbs (Biterolf); but Horst Laubenthal was a rather nasal Walther who ‘cracked’ on an exposed phrase. The chorus under the new direction of Peter Burian seemed to share the general malaise of pitch at first: they will surely have done better at later performances. Colin Davis kept the pace lively and the mood as buoyant as this over-long, over-solemn opera allows. He used an arrangement by which the overture merged into the opening scene, so that was not ‘the Dresden version’. That the definition of the various versions is a more difficult matter than is generally believed was shown in the masterly essay by Reinhard Strom in the Covent Garden programme.

ARTHUR JACOBS

Rating
(5/10)
User Rating
(3/5)
Media Type/Label
HO 86170
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Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 382 MByte (MP3)
Remarks
Broadcast
A production by Elijah Moshinsky