Prom 29: Donald Runnicles conducts Wagner’s Tannhäuser [Robert Dean Smith & Heidi Melton]

Tannhäuser – Grosse Romantische Oper in three acts to a libretto by the composer [performed in an edition “based on the 1875 version, with additions from the 1845 Dresden version”; concert performance; sung in German]

Tannhäuser – Robert Dean Smith
Elizabeth – Heidi Melton
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christoph Pohl
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Ain Anger
Walther von der Vogelweide – Thomas Blondelle
Heinrich der Schreiber – Andrew Rees
Reinmar von Zweter – Brian Bannatyne-Scott
Biterolf – Ashley Holland
Shepherd Boy – Hila Fahima

Chorus of Deutsche Oper Berlin

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Justin Way – Stage director

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 August, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Soloists with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouWithin a Proms season dominated by Wagner in general and his later music-dramas in particular, it is good that the earlier Romantic operas have not been neglected and Tannhäuser was an ideal choice in terms of its being an introduction to the composer. Certainly an earlier generation of Proms audiences would have been familiar with it through extracts – the Overture alone is reckoned to have been performed at these concerts around 300 times – though this was the first occasion on which the three-hour work had been given in its entirety. The outcome, for the most part, was a powerful as well as a convincing account of what, for all its musical accessibility, is not unreasonably seen as Wagner’s most problematic opera.

Presenting the piece was itself not easy, but Justin Way proved equal to the task – giving the singers a decent amount of room to manoeuvre without resorting to needless stage effects, while the spatial placement of offstage voices and brass made full use of the potential of the Royal Albert Hall’s Choir and Gallery areas. Nor was lighting at all intrusive, extending merely to an evoking of scene changes using the wraparound at the top of the stage, but it is a pity a practicable solution to the use of surtitles has not been found, as having the full libretto printed in the programme only abets the page-turning which can be intrusive during quieter passages. As a concert presentation, though, this could hardly have been bettered.

Robert Dean Smith as Tannhäuser in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe casting as a whole had few flaws. While he is no stranger to the title-role, Robert Dean Smith took time to settle – his increasingly fraught exchanges with Venus evincing a shrillness as if to suggest she might hardly have objected to his leaving, though his fervency at the realisation of his return to the Wartburg was undoubted, while his exchanges with the minstrels had an easy warmth. His increasingly forceful interjections during the song-contest verged on the hectoring, though, but there was no doubt as to his eloquence during the lengthy recounting of his pilgrimage which dominates the final Act. Tannhäuser is far from the most perfectly conceived of Wagner’s Heldentenor roles, but Robert Dean Smith ultimately had its measure.

That said it was Heidi Melton’s Elizabeth which proved the highlight in vocal terms. Right from her greeting at the start of the second Act, she conveyed the joy yet also the poignancy of one who was previously betrayed and whose fear of betrayal is not easily overcome. Less wilful than Senta and less unworldly than Elsa, hers is the most conventional but also the most compassionate of Wagner’s earlier female roles – not least in her dialogue with Wolfram in the third Act, when the comprehension that Tannhäuser has not returned with the Pilgrims effectively seals her fate. In her assumption of the role, Melton amply secured the listener’s empathy – and as Wagner-singing per se, this was as good as it gets in the present era.

Heidi Melton as Elisabeth and Robert Dean Smith as Tannhäuser in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouWhile her role is largely restricted to the first Act, Daniela Sindram was a Venus imperious and cajoling in equal measure. Christoph Pohl’s Wolfram conveyed the requisite wisdom when his integrity is attacked in the song-contest and brought beneficent calm to his exchanges with Elizabeth, capped by an easeful rendering of ‘Song to the Evening Star’. If lacking authority as the Landgrave, Ain Anger sang with evident sincerity, while Thomas Blondelle made the most of Walther’s often-omitted aria. Ashley Holland brought self-righteous indignation to Biterolf, though Hila Fahima’s Shepherd Boy – while effortlessly sung – had an inappropriate sensuousness such as underlined why this cameo is best tackled by a treble.

The performance was fortunate indeed to be able to call on the services of the Chorus of Deutsche Oper. Tannhäuser features some of Wagner’s most extensive as well as intricately polyphonic choral writing – coming as it does from a time when the composer produced several fine choral pieces while Kapellmeister to the Saxon court – and the present performers were as alive to the robust music for the guests in the Wartburg as to the fervency of the Pilgrims’ choruses. Not that the orchestral response was at all lacking, the BBC Scottish Symphony evincing a textural clarity and tonal warmth as consistently impressive as were the various instrumental solos: this was playing of a high order.

Donald Runnicles conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouIn which respect, the contribution of Donald Runnicles cannot be gainsaid. Among the most adept Wagner conductor of his generation, he defined the opera’s twin poles of transcendence and abandon from the outset; others have been even more uninhibited in the Venusberg music, but few have directed it with such control and attention to detail. Those set-pieces such as the ‘Entry of the Guests’ had breadth and impetus, while momentum during the full-length version of the song-contest was palpably maintained. Nor was there any lack of dramatic focus over the final Act, which reached its thrilling climax when the miracle of the Pope’s staff is told and the desired redemption of the main protagonist comes to pass.

Performing Tannhäuser in an edition “based on the 1875 version, with additions from the 1845 Dresden version” (to quote the programme) ensured as full a text as is plausible while conveying the extent of the revisions that Wagner made for the disastrous Paris staging of 1861. Tannhäuser is the most imperfect of his stage-works in terms of dramatic continuity, yet it embodies the essence of German mid-Romanticism to a greater extent than does any other opera of the period, besides containing some of Wagner’s most immediately appealing music. Its revival here could not have been more worthwhile.

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