Sunday, 12 December 2010

Tannhäuser, ROH

Tannhäuser's a really dull opera. So very little happens, one can only ascribe its existence in the repertoire to its far superior siblings. There's some interesting music and some impressive melody but, dramatically, the whole thing is so tepid and waffly that I really didn't know where to begin to try and engage with it.

In fact, perhaps the chorus is as good a place as any, for a change. The opera's about the masses actually. Tannhäuser and his perfectly ordinary story (by operatic standards) is just an individual through whom the composer and the social revolution he believed in can find focus. From ethereal voices backstage to the wearied resolve of the pilgrims returning from Rome, the Chorus of the Royal Opera were on stoic form - never a molten core of operatic fervour but always in character and musical without noticeably choral affectation. They were joined by the boys of Tiffin's School who were also impressive - drilled but fresh.

As I've suggested Tannhäuser's a character in search of spiritual redemption. He doesn't try all that hard and what little peace he's accorded comes about by an ill-explained transaction concerning the equally dull Elisabeth. Luckily John Botha's not a dull singer, presenting a genuine manliness with his Heldentenor that's entirely in keeping with the muscular orgy-ballet of the Overture. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Elisabeth is also a more substantial voice than the character. Elisabeth becomes persuasive when her piety isn't presented as the disguise of a timid or naively faithful girl - Westbroek's Elisabeth does not cower but reaches out. Impossible to compare but equally good was the Venus of Michaela Schuster, daring to give more characterisation and colour to her tempting goddess than the top of her voice sometimes allowed.

Vocally the voice of the staging is, by quite some distance, the Wolfram of Christian Gerhaher. Wolfram's a sort of neglected narrator-everyman, a kind of bloodless Leporello, keen for the charismatic Tannhäuser to return and sticking with the love-zombied Elisabeth at her protracted fade-out. There is of course the famous Oh! Du Mein Holder Abendstern as a set piece for the baritone but as early as his first arioso Gerhaher's unsullied, liquid lieder-line was a thing of gawp-inducing beauty. I haven't heard singing like this since Gerald Finley's over-lovely Balstrode or Roderick William's lyric defence of the otherwise indefensible L'Amour de Loin, both at ENO last year. Gerhaher sings easily, within himself, a fine, Viennese-coffee baritone with a perfect cream-whorl of pathos slowly rotating in its midst. This is the reason to buy the ticket; he has fine support in the third act from Christoff Fischesser's 'Landgrave', Herrmann.

On refelection a reason not to buy a ticket is the production which should carry the disclaimer 'Post-Modern! Watch with care irony!' I tried to work with the set, a reproduction of the Royal Opera's own proscenium, but it sat up like the symbol it's meant to be, without any real attempt to incorporate it with the drama at hand. The second Act rectified this belatedly though I found myself thinking about how a court of militia holding a singing competition in the ruins of a temple of lyric drama was more of a statement about arts funding cuts than tied to the Romantic narrative.

Semyon Bychkov conducts with possibly a little too much restraint (nothing really catches fire) but the house orchestra play with the finesse that one now comes to expect.

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