How many times have you been to a Wagner opera in which not only is there not a weak link among the soloists but in which the tenor sounds as fresh at the end of the third act as he did at the beginning of the first? The answer for me would be very very few. This new production of Wagner's rarely seen Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera is one of those very very few occasions. It is an absolute triumph and I am at a loss to understand the grudging tone of some of the reviews.
It has to be admitted that the piece is a strange one. It is very definitely Wagner in transition. Indeed it is rather as if in writing it he worked through a whole litany of Germanic influences (shadows of Bach, Mozart and Schubert were all, I thought, present) as well as anticipating a variety of themes from his later work (the parade at the beginning of the final scene of Die Meistersinger, Amfortas's wound, even it seemed to me Wotan and King Marke in the character of Hermann). But the result is not a hodgepodge but something that at its best packs a real emotional punch – it is hard to think of anything quite comparable elsewhere in Wagner to the extraordinary chorale like section of Act Two following Elizabeth's intervention.
As I've already said, the line-up of soloists is uniformly magnificent, but I would share the top honours between the two very different performances of Johan Botha as Tannhäuser and Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram. Botha wowed me in the recent ROH revival of Lohengrin, Gerhaher was a new name to me – I will be watching closely for future performances. I had given up hope of ever hearing a heldentenor performance of the kind Botha delivers. His voice is ringingly powerful, and contrary to some reviewers I think there is flexibility there too. His monologue in Act Three, describing the failed pilgrimage to Rome and his damnation, built from quiet beginnings to a spell-binding, savage conclusion. Singing out, his voice in the stalls (a rare Christmas treat) had me pinned to my seat. I would take this calibre of performance over the inadequate voices one hears struggling in so many Wagner tenor roles any day of the week. While I agree that he is not the best actor in the world he is perfectly adequate, and, for me, the vocal performance transcends such flaws (and if you're really bothered about it then I suggest you sit in the Amphitheatre where distance covers these sins and the voice is still quite something – or certainly was when I sat up there for Lohengrin). Gerhaher is a different beast altogether. I find it very difficult to think of a comparable Wagner part – essentially it is rather like Schubert lieder plugged into the middle of a Wagner opera. Gerhaher's voice absolutely transfixed me – this is what unrequited love should sound like. He expressed the words so perfectly in song that I scarcely needed to look at the surtitles. The control, the subtlety of tones, the beauty; frankly there are not enough adjectives to describe just how stunning he is in this part.
These two performances alone would make for a special evening, but they are fantastically well supported by their fellow soloists. Eva-Maria Westbroek gives a commanding dramatic performance as Elizabeth (and unlike so many Wagnerian sopranos does not warble). Again I'm at a loss to understand the critics who thought she didn't act the part convincingly, from where I was sitting I thought her performance made excellent sense. Her duet with Botha at the start of the second act is a high point, and a remarkable performance on her part considering she has scarcely sung a note before then. Christof Fischesser does a nicely characterised turn as the Landgrave Hermann, a part relegated to something approaching obscurity by the vocal pyrotechnics going on around him. Gerhaher is well supported, both vocally and in acting terms, by the rest of the prize singers. The only singer who falls a shade below par is Michaela Schuster's Venus (and indeed the only slight dip in the performance for me came during her long scene with Botha in Act One) but it is a bit of a thankless part, and she made up for it by rising to the dramatic tension of the final scene.
Finally, on the musical side, Semyon Bychkov provides a near flawless framework for his singers. He demonstrated, as in Lohengrin, a magnificent sense of the shape of the piece. Again, as there, the opening prelude floated out across the auditorium, scenes would start subtlely and then build and build and build to shattering conclusions. His command of levels was especially impressive in the chorale-like section in Act Two already mentioned. Commanding an enormous orchestra and chorus (both giving uniformly superb performances), not to mention blazing singing from Westbroek and Botha, Bychkov nevertheless contrived to manage matters such that Gerhaher's line always came through the texture. The chorus deserve particular credit here – I wondered if Bychkov had instructed them that if they couldn't hear Gerhaher's line they were singing too loudly, whatever he had done their volume control was absolutely spot on, without any reduction of dramatic impact.
All of which leaves only the staging. Tim Albery has Wagner pedigree – his Ring Cycle for Scottish Opera at the Edinburgh Festival was outstanding, and family members who saw it also reported favourably on his recent Fliegender Hollander at Covent Garden. After the first act I was a little uncertain – I could see what he was trying to do but I wasn't completely convinced. The idea is that the Venusberg is a replica of the Royal Opera stage – into which a sequence of unfortunate men are lured for the opening ballet. At the end of the act, the theatre becomes the setting for the song contest to come, as Elizabeth sits awaiting the return of Tannhäuser. The ballet itself was excellent, the dancers were alluring, showed excellent precision, and built matters up to a properly orgiastic climax. My only criticism, and this is probably the only time you will ever find me saying this, was that it could have done with just a bit more nudity. Clearly it is all about wild sexual acts, and this is slightly unconvincing when the two dancers in question are still wearing most of their clothes. After this things flagged a little. I think the problem here was really the characterisation of Venus rather than the staging. She came across as a hectoring, pouting woman whose beauty was insufficient to make up for these deficiencies and from whom, therefore, any man with a brain cell or two would have run a mile at the first opportunity. From the opening of Act Two onwards, however (and helped by the fact that there is really not a weak musical moment in the latter two acts) the staging provided a solid foundation for the rest of the performances. The theatre becomes a wreck in which the somewhat bedraggled Germanic tribes are trying to rediscover some sense of peace and beauty. In the final act the stage is almost bare, bar a few stones, and the toppled tree which had signified the Germanic countryside in Act One, Scene Two. Convincing worlds are created, the lighting breathes effective life into them, and again, while not a completely overwhelming production I would far rather have something simple and effective like this, than the recent dreadful new production of Tristan.
In short (well obviously not really), the evening is an all round absolute triumph. There are two performances remaining and if you enjoy your Wagner at all I urge you to beg, borrow, or otherwise acquire a ticket. You are unlikely to hear singing and playing of this calibre again in a hurry. Finally, as regular readers will know, where's Runnicles occasionally creates awards, and for the first time I am going to inaugurate one as a result of this extraordinary evening. The inaugural Johan Botha Award for Being a True Wagnerian Heldentenor goes to Johan Botha. Perhaps one day he will work his way up to Siegfried.