Review – Tannhäuser (Wagnerzyklus, Berlin. Saturday 5 May 2012)
Tannhäuser – Robert Dean-Smith
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christian Gerhaher
Elizabeth – Nina Stemme
Venus – Marina Prudenskaja
Landgraf Hermann von Thüringen – Albert Dohmen
Walter von der Vogelweide – Peter Sonn
Biterolf – Wilhem Schwinghammer
Heinrich vin Schreiber – Michael McCown
Reinmar von Zweter – Martin Snell
Ein Junger Hirte – Bianca Reim
Edelknabe – Sabine Puhlmann, Isabelle Voßkühler, Roksolana Chraniuk & Bettina Peck
Chorus master – Nicolas Fink
Conductor – Marek Janowski
First of all plaudits to Marek Janowski for his bold plan to perform in concert and record for posterity all of Wagner’s main operas in and around the year of Wagner’s centenary. So far together with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and an assembly of accomplished singers he has performed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die Fliegende Holländer and Tristan und Isolde with the first two already pressed as CD sets.
At a time when classical record companies are on the whole veering away from recording complete operas, Janowski’s determination and artistic commitment makes a significant and important contribution.
One of the strengths of a concert performance of opera – you can argue – is that it removes the distraction of the staging. I am not in any way saying however that concert performances are in any way better – although judging from some of the stagings I have seen, a concert performances would have been preferable. But rather that they require a different kind of concentration and result in a different emotional response.
And of course, there are ‘straight’ concert performances as that of Tannhäuser in the Großer Saal of the Philharmonie Hall in Berlin, or there are semi-staged performances such as Opera North‘s brilliant Das Rheingold.
In the case of last night it was – bar a single but not overly distracting element – a memorable night with performances of the highest musical standard.
From the opening chorale of the overture it was clear that Janowski was going to take this Tannhäuser at a brisker pace than normal. Without sacrificing any clarity at all, the result was a compelling performance with Janowski demonstrating a clear and intelligent understanding of the overall structure of the opera as well as a deep sensitivity for the singers and the challenges that this opera throws at them.
The orchestral playing of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin was of the highest standard with a beautifully calibrated combination of warmth and bite in the strings with accurate and delicate woodwind and bright brass support. If I had one small gripe it was the affected performance of Thomas Herzog’s cor anglais playing. Being an oboist myself it all seemed a tad too ‘dramatic’. And it almost felt as if his bell-swinging was distracting the already nervous Ms Reim.
And similarly the Rundfunkchor Berlin was superb – resonant, clear and rising to the challenge of each climax while juxtaposing them with the most impressive hushed – almost reverent – singing when required. The chorale at the opening of the third act was particularly spine tingling. I’ve not heard choral singing of this standard apart from the LSO Chorus in the BBC Philharmonic’s Mahler in Bridgewater Hall for a very long time.
Nina Stemme was the original reason for purchasing a ticket for this concert. I had missed her in Tristan und Isolde with Janowski in March due to work commitments and having never seen her in this role this more than assuaged my irritation at missing her Isolde. I have seen her in the Loy production of Tristan at Covent Garden (where I was fortunately enough to be able to see all the action from my seat unlike others) as well as a magnificent Brunnhilde in her first complete Ring in San Francisco.
She is without doubt one of – if not the – leading Wagnerian soprano at the moment because, in short, hers was an incredible Elizabeth. There is definitely something of Birgit Nilsson in her incredibly rich, flexible and dynamic voice, even throughout its range and clarion-clear. Not only did she display great vitality and gusto in Dich, teure Halle, grüß ich wieder at the beginning of the second act – more than ably supported by the grand sweep of Janowski and the orchestra – but was able to also deliver the quieter, more introspective parts of the piece with great skill. Allmächt’ge Jungfrau, hör mein Flehen! was one of two highlights of the evening. As far from the majestic sweep of Elizabeth’s opening number, this is possibly – with its delicate woodwind scoring – Wagner’s most exposed writing for any of his female characters. It neither fazed nor intimidated Ms Stemme whose rapt performance had the whole audience completely motionless and mesmerised. And in the closing scenes of Act Two she more than ably – and with incredible musicianship and precision – held her own again all her male counterparts and the orchestra and chorus as well.
Venus is a thankless role. She’s not a nice woman and the music that Wagner wrote for her reflects this. As a result it requires a singer not only of great vocal strength but also intuition. The Venus of Marina Prudenskaja nearly had it all. She possesses a dark soprano that suited the role and if at times her intonation went astray in the search for dramatic realisation it was a small price to pay. I see that she will sing Waltraute in the Wagnerzyklus Götterdämmerung that I look forward too. And I wouldn’t mind seeing her in recital as well, particularly perhaps in Wagner’s own Wesendonck lieder.
Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram was a lesson in perfection. I remember seeing Covent Garden’s production in 2010 when Gerhaher was unavoidably delayed by snow. His role was more than competently picked up at the time by Daniel Grice and he arrived just in time for the final act.
Renowned as a lieder singer of great talent, it is clear that Gerhaher’s expertise in this genre pays huge dividends when it comes to his performance in opera. His baritone was rich and mellifluous, and as with Ms Stemme, even and resonant throughout his register. But it was his complete mastery of the text, colouring and inflecting his voice as the words demanded, that demonstrated his incredible talent and made his a Wolfram to remember.
On this occasion his O du mein holden Abendstern was incredible and similarly it topped off what was simply the strongest performance of the night. Pace Ms Stemme but I did notice on more than one occasion how even you were ensnared by his performance. His song in the first act was beautifully poised and underscored with seamless legato and wonderfully controlled dynamic range. Last night Gerhaher more than proved he was the ‘alpha’ male amongst all vying for Elizabeth’s hand. In the real world Tannhäuser wouldn’t have stood a chance.
And special mention too for Albert Dohmen’s Hermann von Thüringen, Peter Sonn’s Walter von der Vogelweide and Bianca Reim’s Junger Hirte. Again Dohmen’s Landgraf may have had moments of intonation trouble but it was an impressive portrayal and Sonn’s elegant tenor rang out above both his colleagues and the orchestra. I see he sang David in Janowski’s Die Meistersinger so I might just have to purchase it. Ms Reim had a very clear and appealing soprano but again – and clearly it was a case of nerves and perhaps the distraction of Herzog’s manic gesticulation of his cor anglais – she suffered some uncomfortable intonation problems. But nonetheless a good performance.
So finally to the hero – or anti-hero? – of the piece, Tannhäuser himself. Originally billed as Torsten Kerl it was in fact Robert Dean-Smith. Having seen Dean-Smith only recently as The Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten in Vienna I was surprised to be disappointed. His voice sounded strained and one dimensional for most of the opera and he seem to struggled with the legato – almost quasi-Italianate – lines that Wagner wrote for the character. It wasn’t an unpleasant performance but disappointingly it was a lacklustre one. Perhaps this was also because the incredible performance of Gerhaher through Dean-Smith’s inadequacy in this specific role into uncomfortable sharp relief. By the end of the evening his Tannhäuser was neither sexually charged nor heroic for me. A shame as it was the one thing that marred what was otherwise a memorable evening.
And the whole evening was driven forward by Janowski’s incredible performance on the podium. It was sheer brilliance. From the opening hushed chorale to the final chord his Tannhäuser was one of dramatic urgency without ever letting the detail of Wagner’s score or the beauty of the singing be lost. His understanding of Wagner and the highest standard of playing and singing he gets from his ensemble is awe-inspiring.
Quite rightly the Berlin audience went crazy after each act and at the end.
I haven’t listened to Janowski’s 1980 Ring cycle for a while now, but when I get back to London I will be making room on my iPod for that as well as those instalments of his Wagnerzyklus that are available on CD.
And I cannot wait for him to mount the podium for an all-new recording of Der Ring. While its a shame that Ms Stemme will not be involved to record her first Brunnhilde I am sure it will be as thrilling and memorable a set of concert performances as last night in Berlin.
Personally I cannot wait.