The week in classic: Tannhäuser; Isata Kanneh-Mason & Maxwell Quartet; Gesualdo Six: Secret Byrd

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An orgy with the main stud out of action is – I’m guessing – the ultimate frustration. Fortunately Wagner’s Tannhauser, which begins with a prolonged bacchanal frenzy, is mere theatre, as the Royal Opera House production, directed by Tim Albery and new for 2010, emphatically reminds us. At the center of the stage is a proscenium arch, a replica of the ROH’s gold-and-crimson own. Art and life collide head-on: literally here. An hour before the opening of this second revival, an unwell Stefan Vinke withdrew from singing the title role.

He walked the role gracefully, which fortunately also involves a lot of sitting, with the Austrian tenor Norbert Ernst singing from the side. Uneven dramatic, much tinkered with by Wagner himself, Tannhauser relies on the quality of its singers to yank it out of the rotten swamp of desire or the swamp of religiosity. We have to thank Ernst that the performance, under the direction of Sebastian Weigle, was able to go ahead.

He sang the part in Wuppertal, but his best efforts failed to produce the heroic vocal tension that was needed. You may be wondering, why not an understudy, but having a Covent Garden standard stand-in for a role few people in the world can sing is unworkable. (Try asking Djokovic to hang out in case Nadal has hamstring issues.) That said, the effect of a voice coming from one place and a person lip-synching like a goldfish from another can create some unusual comedy.

We still had a good splurge, choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon: a mesmerizing acrobatic bow, performed fearlessly on, beside and around a long table by 12 dancers. Venus (Ekaterina Gubanova), as a nightclub hostess in sparkling Lurex, held the sway, but this underdeveloped role never quite delivers. Still, there was much to enjoy. The chorus of the Royal Opera (director William Spaulding), as withered pilgrims or people of the Wartburg, sang with impeccable ensemble and rich tonal variation, often hushed to the point of being almost inaudible. The orchestra, too, apart from a nervous flurry of strings, was impressive, constantly alert and attentive to the Italianate score of this early Wagner. (The 1861 “Paris Production” used here contains music written nearly two decades earlier.)

Two top singers gave performances to cherish. Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, as Elisabeth, displayed majestic vocal power, as well as subtle intelligence, adding complexity to this “good woman rejected” role. Davidsen has blossomed since her remarkable first appearance on the opera scene just eight years ago (after winning Plácido Domingo’s Operalia and Queen Sonja competitions in 2015). She earned every decibel of her loud applause.

As Wolfram, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley brought out the pain and humanity of this impeccable knight, who fights to save his friend at the cost of his own happiness. His ode to the evening star (O du, mein holder Abendstern) is the quiet point of the opera, beautifully performed by the always eloquent Finley. Mika Kares’ mighty Landgrave, Sarah Dufresne’s Young Shepherd, and Egor Zhuravskii’s Walther all stood out. This is a lurid production, a bleak, war-torn landscape in Michael Levine’s designs, but still worth seeing – especially in its complete state, with Vinke back in the title role. A bonus is the presence, at the finale, of the Tiffin Boy’s Choir, just as the Pope’s staff sprouts green leaves. Don’t ask. This is Wagner.

Slowly, the classical world is rebuilding itself post-Covid, with careful revision and rearrangement, either intentionally or forced by economics. Changes of leadership or music director are underway in Birmingham, Bournemouth and Manchester. Radio 3, which is partly moving to Salford, has announced a new controller, Sam Jackson. Two major London venues, the Barbican and the Southbank, have had several comings and goings. For now, we welcome the first season on the Southbank fully programmed by Toks Dada, Head of Classical Music.

An early start and an audience of all ages gave pianist Isata Kanneh-Masonconcert with the Maxwell Quartet an air of freshness aided by unusual repertoire. The most famous work was Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor (1845), a prelude to two quintets: Eleanor Alberga’s Clouds for piano quintet (1984), written as a dance score and full of idiosyncratic rhythmic games and enchanting, vague textures; and Ernő Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in C Minor, Opus 1 (1895), a student work, restless and irresistibly lively, with particularly beautiful solos for viola and cello. Kanneh-Mason was at the center of music-making, a poised, unobtrusive chamber musician who was at one with her fellow performers – a winning combination of her youth and the quartet’s experience.

It’s too early in the year to accuse anyone of not noticing William Byrd’s 400th birthday. This English Catholic composer, effectively in exile in his own Protestant country, followed a treacherous route between suppressing and practicing his religion. Secret Byrd, “a riveting staged mass”, took place in the candle-lit crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Owain Park directed the Gesualdo Six in Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, with gamba music by Fretwork: elite early music ensembles both, performing with effortless perfection. You could walk around in near darkness and follow the action. Or you could sit, listen and introduce yourself.

Star ratings (out of five)
Isata Kanneh-Mason & Maxwell Quartet
Secret Byrd

  • Tannhauser is at the Royal Opera House, London, until February 16

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