PROMS 29: Tannhäuser: Far From Perfect but Notably Enjoyable

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 29 Wagner Tannhäuser (semi-staged performance, sung in German). Soloists, Concert Association of the Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.8.2013 (CC)

Tannhäuser – Robert Dean Smith
Elizabeth – Heidi Melton
Venus – Daniela Sindram
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 Fahim

More Wagner: after the extremes of excellence of Barenboim’s Ring – certainly in reference to the orchestral contributions – here was a very different affair. Not that this was a bad performance at all. However, the music did not scale the same heights and the BBC Scottish orchestra, whatever its merits, cannot compete with the Staatskapelle Berlin. Yet Runnicles, chief conductor of the Scottish orchestra, is also general music director of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin and he brought with him their chorus; and as fine a group of singers it is difficult to imagine. The Chorus of Sirens (way up in the Gallery) was simply luscious, while the Pilgrims demonstrated just how beautiful male voices can sound.

It is fair to say, I think, that Runnicles can be mentioned in the same breath as Barenboim. He is no stranger to Wagner at the Proms, and he understands how, even in this much earlier work, the music of Wagner breathes, not only in the long phrases but over larger spans, too.. The brass were supremely balanced in the overture, clearly the result of careful rehearsal. The sense of the dramatic was clearly set out here; the Weber-like shimmerings set against the heavy brass statements so predictive of later Wagner; the aching, sighing string gestures seemingly linked to the eroticism of the Venusberg. The off-stage brass constituted one of the more impressive elements of the entire evening.

Tannhäuser suffers from musicological issues. Runnicles opted for the long plan, choosing the 1875 Vienna version, yet interpolating sections from the 1845 Dresden score. His belief in his strategy shone through the reading, and it was Runnicles’ conducting that enabled the evening to attain success.

Way back in 2001, I reviewed an Arte Nova disc showcasing Robert Dean Smith. The review was less than complementary, and despite Dean’s now-glowing curriculum vitae – including stepping in at the Proms Tristan this year – it remains difficult to muster great enthusiasm. Smith can project well, and has most of the reserves this taxing role demands. Certainly at times he gave the impression he could sing until his head fell off, attaining a near-Heldentenor strength in the final moments of the first act. His Rome Narration was a wonder of stamina – and was illuminated from within by Runnicles’ contribution. Yet his acting is simply risible. Stiff and uncomfortable, he would be more at home in an Australian soap opera. That means that the only way to convince us, the listeners, of his assumption of the title role was via his voice. His tuning is not always spot on, though, and he was rather eclipsed in the second scene of Act 1 by his Venus, the Proms debut artist and creamy-voiced German mezzo Daniela Sindram, who made her role debut as Venus last year at the Bavarian State Opera. Sindram’s legato over long melodies was a thing of wonder, and frankly it was always a bit of a relief when it was her turn to sing in the long exchanges of the first act. Her temptress lines, “Geliebter! Komm, sieh dort die Grotte” found her miraculously floating notes, casting a proper spell. Her anger, too, was most believable (“Zieh hin, Wahnbetörter!”), her outbursts demonstrating that both ends of her vocal range are equally secure.

We have to wait until the second act to hear the Elisabeth, a role here sung by Adler Fellow of San Francisco Opera, soprano Heidi Melton. Her “Dich, teure Halle” was preceded by an orchestra that found itself so almost together. Melton has a big voice, as her opening of “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau” showed, but one with a pleasingly fresh tone. She was a believable Elisabeth, also, excelling in her placatory passages towards the end of the second act.

As the Langrave, Estonian bass Ain Anger, another Proms debut artist, was commendably solid and confident – he has sung this role at the Deutsche Oper. His speech in Act 2 Scene 4 (“Gar viel und schön ward hier in dieser Halle”) was strong and eloquent. Thomas Blondelle was a lusty Walther von der Vogelweide, his strength underlining what would appear to be some weakness in Smith’s voice during the second act. Christoph Pohl has appeared as Wolfram at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, and he obviously lived the role. His “Wie Todesahnung” was beautifully dark, his legato at “O du, mein holder Abendstern” absolutely lovely. Hila Fahim was an effective (female) Shepherd Boy,. She sang from the level of the organ while the cor anglais was situated up the stairs to the side.

There was not really a weak link in the cast as such, and the BBC Scottish orchestra impressed throughout – is this really the same ensemble I looked down on in the early 1980s? Well, clearly not. In summary, a far from perfect evening but a notably enjoyable one, nonetheless.

Colin Clarke