Tannhäuser, Longborough Opera, LFO, June 2016Posted on 12 June 2016
At this performance on June 11th, the Queen’s official 90th birthday, the orchestra and chorus started with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem before the opera itself — a nice touch. The subsequent performance was a stunning success for Neal Cooper, making his first appearance in the title role under conductor Anthony Negus, who shook him warmly by the hand during the curtain calls.
Negus heads the team, including director Alan Privett and designer Kjell Torriset, that brought Longborough the Ring in 2013 and Tristan in 2015, turning the Cotswolds into a centre of excellence for Wagner productions. He works wonders with a downsized orchestra, and I enjoyed this Tannhäuser more than others I have seen at Covent Garden and Bayreuth in recent years, partly because Negus has negotiated an illuminating path between the different versions, without some director demanding an extensive bacchanale for a team of dancers performing second-rate choreography. This was first-rate, with attractive opera ladies behind a curtain as spirits of sensuality, and Alison Kettlewell a warmly toned and hugely stylish Venus that any man would gladly spend a night with.
The fact that Wagner regretted never having produced a definitive Tannhäuser, and composed his story from at least two different mediaeval sources — a Singers Contest featuring the dark arts of a Minnesinger named Heinrich von Ofterdingen, and the tale of a great traveller named Tannhäuser who visited Frau Venus in her mountain redoubt — is well expressed during the overture as we see Wagner on stage, poring over books and composing so furiously that he emphatically rejects his wife’s attempts to make him look at a recently received letter. For me this worked well, with Wagner and wife Minna then becoming Tannhäuser and Venus, and I loved Ben Ormerod’s lighting and liked the use of the auditorium itself for the exit and entrance of the pilgrims. The one unusual aspect of this production that grated with me was the highly emotional representation of the saintly Elisabeth — very likely based on the early thirteenth century Elisabeth of Thuringia — well expressed vocally by Erika Mädi Jones.
The Minnesingers were excellent, notably Stuart Pendred as a bold and well-focused Biterolf, with Icelandic baritone Hrólfur Sæmundsson showing suitably restrained simplicity and fine lyricism in the important role of Wolfram, and Donald Thomson expressing effortless bass authority as the Landgraf. The chorus sang marvellously, and I loved Chiara Vinci as the young shepherd, whose miming of the pipe playing seemed so authentic.
All in all Neal Cooper’s vocal and dramatic portrayal of the title role, and the musical clarity of Anthony Negus’s conducting rendered this a more enjoyable and illuminating Tannhäuser than any I can remember.
Performances continue until June 18, with Neal Cooper and John Treleaven sharing the title role — for details click here.