Tannhäuser, Royal Opera House, review: Lise Davidsen saves the day
A single great performance is sometimes enough to carry an operatic evening. Covent Garden had caught the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen at the perfect moment to take on the daunting role of Elisabeth in Wagner’s opera. Representing virtue and strength (against the more fleshly attractions of Venus, played here by Ekaterina Gubanova) Davidsen sings with total poise, control and projection, radiant in tone, the phrases perfectly shaped. She is saintly in sacrificing herself, and fierce in the passions that guide her. It is a complete, thrilling assumption of the role.
The rest is more mixed. This story of conflict between the forces of purity and indulgence is arguably laboured, and even Wagner knew that his opera remained a problem; he kept revising it to the end of his life, when he declared that he still “owed the world another Tannhäuser”. But its alternately triumphant and melodic music ensured it was extremely popular throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, only fading in recent times as later Wagner became more valued.
Tim Albery’s production debuted in 2010, when its cute mixture of a miniature Covent Garden stage and peasant choruses with guns created a frisson; now it seems faded, though well lit by David Finn. The concept works in the first act, but by the time the theatre has collapsed around the singers in the second act (perhaps a vision of the result of the next round of Arts Council England’s cuts to opera), the song contest taking place in a sea of candles is unconvincing.
This first night of this revival was hit by the fact that Stefan Winke, playing Tannhäuser, had lost his voice: he had to act the role while at the last moment Norbert Ernst was brought in to sing it - with consummate professionalism, if not the most ingratiating tone - from the side of the stage. Among the excellent voices around him, Mika Kares made an unusually strong, resonant Hermann, his relationship with his niece Elisabeth touchingly drawn. Gerald Finley made an ideally ardent Wolfram von Eschenbach, though in his hit number ‘O du, mein holder Abenstern’ (Song to the Evening Star) he seemed to slip out of sync with the orchestra.
This was not the only time in the evening when Sebastian Weigle’s conducting seemed less than secure: the famous overture limped, and though the introduction to Act Two was much sprightlier, and the blazing fanfares of that act (surely among the least inspired pages Wagner wrote) were solidly sustained. But then Elisabeth’s rapt prayer ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’ was poorly supported by the orchestra’s wind players who are here very exposed. For forward momentum we had to look instead to the splendid chorus, magnificently complemented at the close by the youthful voices of the Tiffin Boys’ Choir.
Until February 16. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk