Magazine article The Spectator

Sabotaging a Fine Evening

Magazine article The Spectator

Sabotaging a Fine Evening

Article excerpt

Opera Tannhauser

(Opera North, Leeds)

Everyone, beginning with the composer himself, feels that Tannhuser is Wagner's least satisfactory work. He went on tinkering with it as with no other of his works and was still voicing his dissatisfaction with it to Cosima three weeks before his death. How the man who had composed Parsifal thought he could improve his crude early effort on a broadly similar subject is mysterious. Yet he was right to feel that there is far too much good music, and more than enough meaty drama in the work for it to be left to languish, as nowadays it largely does. Opera North's new production of it is the first in Britain for a long time. Musically it is another triumph for the company; scenically and dramatically it is silly, a failure of an elementary kind.

Granted the inadequacies of the opera, boldness would be welcome in handling it, and maybe the director, David Fielding, thinks he has been bold. Actually he has partly sent the drama up, partly given us a stolidly literal-minded account of it. The Venusberg is a red-light district, five red lights to be precise. Venus herself is imposing: a black-clad, bossy madame excellently acted, lusciously sung by Anne-Marie Owens. Tannhauser, the ultra-burly Jeffrey Lawton, wears a double-breasted suit, de rigueur for this year's Wagner heroes, and a steel waistcoat. The Landgrave goes further, having a winged helmet to put on at key moments. Norman Bailey, singing the role, must have welcomed the opportunity to wear Wotan's traditional headgear after decades of singing in the Ring in modern outfits, but the total effect is pointlessly incongruous. Nor does Rodney Blumer's prosey English translation do much for his credibility. In his lengthy Act II address he sings of `enriching the quality of life', for all the world as if he were an exhausted electioneering politician. Bailey's voice is a bit tremulous now, but he could still command the old authority if he were given a chance.

The singer who is most disabled by how she is made to look and what she is required to do is the Elisabeth, Rita Cullis. This extremely promising artist is presented as a frump, her only expression that of an anxious hotel manageress. When she enters to greet the `great hall of song' she in fact throws herself on to an old-style operatic rock, the only scenery around at the time. This is defusing any possible drama with a mean vengeance. Later, when the minstrels round on Tannhauser for singing Venus's praises, Cullis does command them to stand back with admirable firmness, of manner and of tone. Her best moments of singing suggest an heroic soprano of the near future; but she is too sensitive a performer not to reveal her embarrassment with a large proportion of the foolish things she is asked to do, the last of them being to lie in a coffin several sizes too small for her. …

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