A Tenor Chairman
Wagner tinkered with Tannhäuser after its premiere in 1845, making a new version in 1861 with subsequent emendations as late as 1875. He was 32 at the time of the Dresden first performance with The Flying Dutchman behind him. By the time of the Paris production he was older by sixteen years plus the composing of Tristan. By this time his style had changed: the overture melds into the new Venusberg music and the difference is almost as big as if a postage stamp had been stuck on top of the Mona Lisa. Its not an opera all of a piece anymore but few listeners would want to forego the wonderful Venusberg episode, a wonderful orgy of sensual music.
But what do you do on the stage? Covent Garden (15 December) plonks a forty-foot table/bed and a corps de ballet weaving and moving sensually, most effectively. Short of actual copulation this was a good solution, an atheletic free-for-all with some movements inspired perhaps by McGregor’s ballet Chroma where extensions of normal body fluctuations seem almost rubberized. With the orchestra going full tilt this was very effective.
From the very start Semyon Bychkov’s conducting was startlingly good, thrilling, thoroughly Wagnerian; he is no speedy Gonzalez; the longueurs towards the end of Act Two and the beginning of the last act still make one wish that Wagner had even more thoroughly rewritten. But the performance as a whole was deeply impressive from the musical point of view.
The production by Tim Albery left much to be desired as if Costcutters had been at work: curtains uninterruptus, no hall for the song contest, no scenery to speak of. The one exception was a duplicate (and probably vastly expensive) replica of the Garden’s proscenium and curtain appeared set some twenty feet behind the real thing. Why? Another feature was chairs. Half-a-dozen in the Venusburg scene and thereafter there were always chairs. Why? And the answer dawned on one. Johann Botha is an XL tenor and so the production was geared so that he could sit down as frequently as possible. Likewise his costume disguised his girth, a long overcoat most of the evening. His voice is rarely lovely but he does sing the notes fairly if squarely; his acting is humdrum. Venus was more than adequately sung by Michaela Schuster – last seen poisoning Adrianna Levouvreur – but here slinking gracefully in black. Elisabeth (Eva-Maria Westbrook) was note perfect but her voice was far from steady. As often happens, it was the lower male voices that provided the most satisfactory singing of the evening: Christof Fischesser as the Landgrave and Christian Gerhaer as Wolfram. Chorus lusty but not very beautiful.
But it was Bychkov’s evening – and Wagner’s.