WagnerTannhäuser Prom 29 and at Bayreuth. Worlds apart. If there were a contest between the two, Bayreuth would win on every single count. Daniel Barenboim's erratic but exciting, passionate Ring with the Staatskapelle Berlin (reviews here, here and here) raised expectations but lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice. Donald Runnicles has a reputation for Wagner because he conducted on the West Coast of the US, the most computer-savvy place in the world. But hearing this Prom together with Bayreuth is a telling exercise that reminds us that internet opinion is dominated by a relatively small circle and primarily reflects the perspective of the English-speaking world. Antonio Pappano's Tannhäuser wasn't idiomatic, but at least it had character and was engaged, so it worked. Runnicles' Wagner appeals because it fits what some assume Wagner should be, and Wagner never disappoints. But if Tannhäuser tells us anything, it's that the safe bet isn't the right choice. Listen to Bayreuth HERE and hear how challenging this opera can really be.
If Bayreuth makes odd choices with directors, its choice of conductors is pretty close to flawless. Andris Nelsons, for example, one of the most exciting conductors of his generation. Axel Kober was new to me, but he has a good pedigree from Leipzig Opera. His Tannhäuser is a revelation. In the long ballet introduction, Kober emphasizes the conflict between the main themes: trumpets surging confidently forwards, undercut by a more mystical theme later associated with the pilgrimage. As the music surges forwards, it's lit by "flames" from the strings, suggesting perhaps the flames of hellfire and damnation. Tannhäuser isn't a jolly medieval pageant but a struggle that cannot be reconciled. Kober brings out the fundamental tension that lies behind the grandeur. In the lighter, more magical moments and scurrying "winds", he even makes us feel why Tannhäuser enjoyed Venusberg, and why he longs to return to its freedom, however corrupt.
We don't need to see medieval trumpeters to feel the emotional soul of this opera. Truly wonderful, folk-like woodwinds suggest the simplicity of medieval music, its purity a foil for the excesses of Venusberg. The Young Shepherd (Katja Stuber) sounds part shepherd, part angel, calling down from the heights. As usual, Wagner's theology is dodgy. The battle here is between Venus, the Virgin Mary and the Virgin Elisabeth; Jesus doesn't get much of a look in, so the Shepherd is more significant than we might think.
Kober's textures are clean and bright, so details shine. Before the footmen announce Wolfram von Eschenbach, (Michael Nagy), we hear their sprightly footsteps in the music. The harps adorn his singing with luminous grace, so we remember how fragile Tannhäuser's "lute" sounded in comparison. Duelling stringed instruments! Wolfram and Tannhäuser have different weapons, but the apparently more primitive weapon triumphs in the end. Kober, Pappano and Barenboim also had the advantage of working with orchestras who have the natural dramatic sheen that comes from playing opera all the time.
The Bayreuth singers, too, were among the best in the business. No-one who heard Johan Botha's Tannhäuser will ever forget how he made the role glisten with almost supernatural colour, but Bayreuth had him sing Siegmund this year. Torsten Kerl is extremely good. His timbre is naturally bright and he shades it well to create the ravages that Tannhäuser's experiences have wrought on his soul. At the Prom, Robert Dean Smith sang the role. As Tristan last week, he was barely audible live, but OK on the broadcast. We owe a lot to BBC sound engineering. If Dean Smith's voice sounds old and tired, arguably so was Tannhäuser. But in the critical third act, Kerl's mastery of range and emotion was more impressive, by far. Such ringing, penetrating notes !
Camilla Nylund's Elisabeth in Bayreuth was glorious. Her top is spectacularly lucid. Elisabeth applies her voice like a spear, hurling it to the heavens, so it draws down the mercy of the Virgin Mary herself. Nylund's singing make you believe such things are possible. I've loved her work for years, but this was her finest performance ever. Michelle Breedt's Venus is almost her equal, glowing with sultry power. Heidi Melton and Daniela Sindham for Runnicles are good enough, but just aren't in that class.
Christian Gerhaher's career as opera singer was made by his stunning Wolfram "O du meine holder Abendstern" at Covent Garden. At Bayreuth, Michael Nagy sang a more rounded Wolfram. He wasn't quite so stunning in the Big Number, but he didn't save himself for it, either. As all-round characterisation, Nagy's Wolfram had personality and a certain depth the role doesn't often get. I quite liked Christoph Pohl at the Prom, but Nagy just has more finesse. Similarly, Günther Groissböck's Landgrave would be hard to equal, though Ain Anger has potential. The Prom was pretty much saved by the Concert Association of the Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, proving yet again that opera choruses are a different species from ordinary choruses,
In live performance, we often get carried away because of the sense of communal occasion. That's not quite the same as hearing things in purely musical terms, but artistic quality is what really counts in the end.