Tannhäuser

Paul Daniel
Opera North Chorus
English Northern Philharmonia
Date/Location
10 May 1997
Grand Theatre Leeds
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
HermannNorman Bailey
TannhäuserJeffrey Lawton
Wolfram von EschenbachKeith Latham
Walther von der VogelweideJeffrey Stewart
BiterolfClive Bayley
Heinrich der SchreiberRichard Berkeley-Steele
Reinmar von ZweterMichael John Pearson
ElisabethRita Cullis
VenusAnne-Marie Owens
Ein junger Hirt?
Gallery
Reviews
Telegraph

Timid raid on Wagner

POOR OLD Tannhäuser, an opera which has never quite made the grade. Its premiere in Dresden in 1845 was a flop, with singers as uncomprehending of Wagner’s intentions as the audience; while its revised incarnation threw the Paris Opéra into a notorious uproar in 1861, when the connoisseurs of the Jockey Club found themselves denied their customary treat of a ballet interlude in Act 2.

Wagner continued to fiddle with the score – he sensed its shortcomings all too clearly, but never quite fixed them – and although the Victorians eventually fell into a fin de siècle swoon over the protagonist’s struggle to choose between the attractions of Divine and Fleshly Love, it has remained an awkwardly articulated affair, one minute brilliantly confident and dashing, the next thunderously dull.

Michael Tanner, in his wise monograph Wagner, calls it the composer’s “least successful work” (Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot notwithstanding), and dolled up in Opera North’s new staging it certainly seemed to merit that bottom notch. This was no fault of anybody in the pit: Paul Daniel’s conducting of the rarely heard “Dresden” version (more succinct than its Parisian successor and more obviously indebted to Weber) was spunky and robust, and the playing of the English Northern Philharmonia showed a heart-and-soul commitment that compensated for some rough edges and fluffs.

There were strengths in the cast, too, though personal physical allure was not outstanding among them. Jeffrey Lawton deserves an operatic George Cross for his Tannhäuser. He began noisily and anxiously, failing to find the easy legato that his Venusberg music requires, but went on to hold his ground with heroic fortitude. His forthright rendition of his insufferably tedious Act 3 narration almost sustained my attention. He made a sterling effort to act, too.

Anne-Marie Owens presented a brisk dominatrix of a Venus, Keith Latham a forthright Wolfram. Rita Cullis reached somewhat higher as Elisabeth: her phrasing was eloquent, her soprano gleaming as she greeted the Hall of the Wartburg at the opening of Act 2.

A role like the Landgrave is beyond Norman Bailey’s vocal resources at this late stage of his career, but his Knights were an impressive bunch, and the chorus gave their all. The Pilgrims’ Hymn stirred even this hopeless cynic to a shudder of exaltation.

Otherwise I struggled to take it seriously. David Fielding’s production, which he both directed and designed, started with a sensational idea – the Knights of the Wartburg, dressed as paratroopers in balaclavas, raiding Venus’ brothel and enjoying a bit of anonymous rape and pillage in the lounge while Tannhäuser idled with the madam of the house upstairs.

We all sat up and steeled ourselves for an evening of tutting and eye-rolling, when suddenly Fielding seemed to lose his nerve and gave up trying. Bar the odd bare lightbulb and fashionable tilt, Acts 2 and 3 turned out to look very much like something you might have seen at Sadler’s Wells circa 1960, complete with nice orderly processions, lots of sword-waving and even a final shower of confetti – hardly the sort of radical, deconstructive interpretation for which Fielding is usually employed. I left the theatre feeling that Tannhäuser had yet again been denied the tender loving care it requires.

Rupert Christiansen | 10 May 1997

The Spectator

Sabotaging a fine evening

Everyone, beginning with the composer himself, feels that Tannhauser is Wagner’s least satisfactory work. He went on tinker- ing with it as with no other of his works and was still voicing his dissatisfaction with it to Cosima three weeks before his death. How the man who had composed Parsifal thought he could improve his crude early effort on a broadly similar subject is myste- rious. Yet he was right to feel that there is far too much good music, and more than enough meaty drama in the work for it to be left to languish, as nowadays it largely does. Opera North’s new production of it is the first in Britain for a long time. Musical- ly it is another triumph for the company; scenically and dramatically it is silly, a fail- ure of an elementary kind.

Granted the inadequacies of the opera, boldness would be welcome in handling it, and maybe the director, David Fielding, thinks he has been bold. Actually he has partly sent the drama up, partly given us a stolidly literal-minded account of it. The Venusberg is a red-light district, five red lights to be precise. Venus herself is impos- ing: a black-clad, bossy madame excellently acted, lusciously sung by Anne-Marie Owens. Tannhauser, the ultra-burly Jeffrey Lawton, wears a double-breasted suit, de rigueur for this year’s Wagner heroes, and a steel waistcoat. The Landgrave goes fur- ther, having a winged helmet to put on at key moments. Norman Bailey, singing the role, must have welcomed the opportunity to wear Wotan’s traditional headgear after decades of singing in the Ring in modern outfits, but the total effect is pointlessly incongruous. Nor does Rodney Blumer’s prosey English translation do much for his credibility. In his lengthy Act II address he sings of ‘enriching the quality of life’, for all the world as if he were an exhausted elec- tioneering politician. Bailey’s voice is a bit tremulous now, but he could still command the old authority if he were given a chance.

The singer who is most disabled by how she is made to look and what she is required to do is the Elisabeth, Rita Cullis. This extremely promising artist is present- ed as a frump, her only expression that of an anxious hotel manageress. When she enters to greet the ‘great hall of song’ she in fact throws herself on to an old-style operatic rock, the only scenery around at the time. This is defusing any possible drama with a mean vengeance. Later, when the minstrels round on Tannhauser for singing Venus’s praises, Cullis does com- mand them to stand back with admirable firmness, of manner and of tone. Her best moments of singing suggest an heroic soprano of the near future; but she is too sensitive a performer not to reveal her embarrassment with a large proportion of the foolish things she is asked to do, the last of them being to lie in a coffin several sizes too small for her.

Meanwhile Tannhauser has returned from Rome looking much more like a tra- ditional pilgrim than when he departed. But at no point did Lawton suggest that he had any concern with the role except for singing it pretty accurately. That in itself is a feat, one of the reasons why the opera is rarely staged. Yet the strain was often apparent, a strain which could have been the character’s if Lawton had been acting, but remained the performer’s since he wasn’t. He has a swoony head-voice, too often used; and a beefy tone for most of the role, which occasionally degenerated into shouting. He and Cullis were both at their best in the Act II duet, one of the trickiest parts of the score, and one with some of its loveliest music.

It was Paul Daniel’s conducting, and the glowing performance of the orchestra, which made the evening, despite many more reservations than I have listed, well worthwhile. Daniel took the Overture at a brisk pace, but that meant that the too- familiar opening tune gained momentum without losing dignity. Even though at Leeds, as almost everywhere, the (or more accurately a) Dresden version was per- formed, the scene between Venus and Tannhauser, usually by far the least inspired passage in Wagner’s oeuvre, was compelling, the music moving in a series of surges which continued throughout the rest of the score. One or two brass misfortunes on a hot evening apart, the colours of Wag- ner’s often plush orchestration were pre- cisely realised. In the ensemble near the end of Act II, the greatest of all grand opera set pieces, Daniel showed a masterly grasp, though he had to keep the chorus down to let the soloists be heard. It was moving, all the more so since the song con- test had been given in its fullest version and the tension building over a vast span. One of Daniel’s finest effects was to make sure that nothing stood out as a ‘number’, so even Wolfram’s apostrophe to the Evening Star — those five lights again, yel- low this time — and its cello reiteration were integrated, by being skilfully under- played. How effective it could all have been, with a moderately serious produc- tion. Nothing can cover all Tannhauser’s blemishes, but it does seem a waste to sab- otage a fine evening of music by ensuring that the audience is made to feel what an irredeemably dated opera it is.

Michael Tanner | 9 May 1997

Opera

Paul Daniel chose to mark the end of his seven-year term as music director in Leeds with a new production of Tannhauser. It was a brave decision: a definitive version of the work eluded even Wagner himself, and the city has no great Wagnerian tradition. No matter. This company has always taken risks—and brought off most of them. Less intelligible was the choice of David Fielding as producer, a debutant in Leeds and one with apparently no Wagner in his background. The problem with such a would-be rebel is keeping him on a tight enough leash, or any leash at all, especially given that he was to act as his own designer. It was not solved on this occasion: he got away with murder. For those salivating at the prospect of bacchanalian revelry in the Venusberg, there was immediate disappointment. A ring of plastic-covered easy chairs and garish red light-bulbs proclaimed no exotic seraglio, rather a back-street brothel. Nothing new there. Peter Sellars did something similar in Chicago in 1988, with Venus as a madam in a Las Vegas motel. Unfortunately, Fielding had to hit the sleaze-button by having the customers—five soldiers in mottled orange battle suits and terrorist-style balaclavas (who later—what a clever idea!—turn out to be the same puritanical knights who are so shocked at Tannhauser’s sensuality)—grope naked, blown-up mannequins. Had the analogy been carried through—sexual hypocrisy has not changed in 150 years, that sort of message— we might have forgiven Fielding’s ineptitude. The light bulbs, now yellowish, descended for Wolfram’s Hymn to the Evening Star and duly rose again, but this time they just seemed part of a cost-cutting exercise.

Fielding’s permanent set, from which Peter Mumford’s imaginative lighting gave varied relief, was another piece of nonsense. A high, semi-circular screen, marked off with a grid, cramped all the action into the front half of the stage, no doubt intended to reflect an oppressive society, but crazy with a chorus expanded to 60 voices. Elisabeth was vouchsafed the doubtful inspiration of a figurehead of the Virgin, angled in from stage left like the Dutchman’s prow, miles off course. This was balanced by a tree, similarly skewed, on the other side, the sole suggestion of the great outdoors. A door beside it gave handy access to the baser pleasures of the Venusberg whenever Tannhauser got the urge. Overhead, a great blue pointer fired fearful rays at the cowering customers in the brothel, but reversed itself to provide, one supposed, a stairway to heaven for our redeemed hero. Its place was taken by a life-size bronze horse and rider dangling inexplicably over the song-contestants. Costumes were equally random: the knights wore suits over their chainmail waistcoats, but brandished swords all the same. There seemed no pattern to Fielding’s fantasies, but if he ever returns to Leeds he need not patronize his audience with such a mishmash of clichés. For a blind man this was a highly acceptable evening. The Dresden version of the score was sung to Rodney Blumer’s stylish translation, which emerged virtually word-perfect. Jeffrey Lawton’s Tannhauser was a mixed bag. His first act was more rough than ready and cannot have won many converts. But he confounded expectation with a gripping Roman Narration, and even managed to rein himself

in for some quieter phrases. He certainly has the stamina for the role; and with a little more discipline, he would surely find a steadier focus. Rita Cullis gave as noble an Elisabeth as you could hope to hear. She resisted all temptation to force her tone, and emerged spectacularly from the fray, her tone radiant, beautifully forward, not only in the glories of her greeting to the Hall of Song, but in the deep solitude of her Prayer. Her quicker movements hinted at emotional turmoil well beyond conventional saintliness. Anne-Marie Owens was a muscular, passionate Venus, alluring in black décolleté, while Keith Latham invested his two big moments as Wolfram with immense freshness and warmth. Norman Bailey brought a certain distinction to the role of the Landgrave. Paul Daniel’s English Northern Philharmonia was as well-drilled as it has ever been, smoothly-oiled in the overture and keenly alive to dramatic potential throughout what is a stern test of stamina. The chorus was simply superb, its virile blend unaffected by augmentation. But it would have been pleasing to be given a producer who did not feel he had to parade his fantasies all over a work that would benefit from a healthy dose of realism. For all his vacillations, Wagner thought quite deeply about this piece. And modern audiences can actually handle medieval legends.

MARTIN DREYER

Rating
(5/10)
User Rating
(3/5)
Media Type/Label
OMS 098
Get this Recording
Donate $5 to download MP3
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 250 MByte (MP3)
Remarks
Broadcast (BBC Radio 3)
Sung in English
A production by David Fielding