tue 21/11/2017

Tannhäuser, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Tannhäuser, Royal Opera

Tannhäuser, Royal Opera

An inert lead performance leaves Bychkov, Westbroek and Gerhaher to shine

Was something up with Johan Botha's Tannhäuser? 'Too much control was my conclusion as to what was up. The valve to his soul had been sealed shut'

The double standards in opera are amazing. If heldentenor Johan Botha - a man the size of a small Eastern European country - had been a woman, he would have been refused re-entry to the stage till he'd had a gastric band fitted. But his size was the least of our worries. For those of us who vainly cling to the idea of opera as a viable dramatic art form, Botha's return to Covent Garden as Tannhäuser was one of the most profoundly depressing experiences of my life.

For most of the first two acts Botha might as well have been a stuffed bear on wheels. He paced from stage right to stage left to stage right with so few discernible human qualities I thought he might be Susan Boyle. All of which should have been set at naught. Irrelevant. Beneath the concerns of a critic - as I'm sure you'll all speedily point out. Botha is after all, first and foremost, a singer. It is with his voice that he should indicate and carve out presence, character and movement. It is with his voice that he can transcend - as so many have - physical awkwardness and oddity. It is with the voice that opera becomes a viable dramatic art form. And it was with his voice that the good ship HMS Botha ultimately grounded itself.

Was there something wrong? Technically speaking nothing seemed awry. He had all the huff and puff - and by golly, does one need a lot of huff and puff for this role - required to sustain the performance. Yet the translation of this huffing and puffing into emotion or storytelling was so pronounced by its absence that one started to think there must be something up. Too much control was my conclusion as to what was up. The valve to his soul had been sealed shut.

So with Botha on the bench for much of the game this production was always going to be more than a little lame. A Tannhäuser without Tannhäuser is a bit like a house without a door. Access is tricky. So we tried a few windows. The easiest way in normally is through the Venusberg, which last night was the Royal Opera House. Quite literally. Director Tim Albery had replicated the Royal Opera House's proscenium arch, stage and curtain behind the proscenium arch, stage and curtain. Here, on the stage that lay on stage the debauchery began. Thrillingly choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon, poshly dressed dancers flung their bodies - and the chairs and table - in back-breaking wave-like shapes, deconstructing their refined reality, mirroring the sexual flipping and flopping of the musical start. It was the highlight of an overly conceptual and incoherent production.

Michaela Schuster's Venus couldn't quite match up to the seductions of the dancers, though she tried her best. It isn't easy I imagine trying to seduce a supporting wall. Or was that Botha? Difficult to tell. Many of us hoped that Eva-Maria Westbroek's Elisabeth would be the one to open up the opera. And to an extent she did. She filled out her character as much as Botha thinned his so that we got far more than the pitiable cipher that Wagner's drama offers up on paper. In a way her irreproachably fair, virtuous and humane qualities are so much more attractive than the suburban seductions of Schuster's Venus that there's not much of a dramatic contest for Botha's Tannhäuser.

So our search for an entry to the soul of this work - I felt like Parsifal, I did - continued. Few of the Minnesingers - Tannhäuser's fellow warrior-artists - shone very brightly. But then came Christian Gerhaher's Wolfram von Eschinbach (pictured right with Westbroek's Elisabeth). In him, one had a soulmate, someone to admire and believe in and cry for, and a voice - gauzy, flickering, Lieder-like in sensitivity - that always teetered beguilingly on the cusp of a speaking voice. Modesty, selflessness and unrequited love are his lot. Gerhaher delivered his overshadowed but important story - he is a John the Baptist figure to Elisabeth's Jesus - with immense subtlety and quiet power. His "Song to the Evening Star" was shattering.

Gerhaher's contribution wouldn't have been enough, however, to carry the whole four-and-a-half-hour evening. For this one relied on a hero in the pit, conductor Semyon Bychkov. The energy, the honesty, the flexibility of his instructions would have been enough. But he was also drawing the most divine beauty from each and every musician. Each break-away solo or chamber-like melodising from the clarinet, violin, cello, horns or the flutter-tonguing flutes glistened with unalloyed joy. It reminded us that beneath all the musical fanfare of Wagner is a great miniaturist. Some of the most captivating moments of the evening came from Wagner's frequent retreat into small forces, especially those that accompany Gerhaher.

The musicality of Bychkov, Gerhaher and Westbroek and the now rousing, now stilled choir more than made up for the work's dramatic limitations. On which subject, ladies and gents, time for some plain-speaking. Early Wagner it may be but as a play Tannhäuser is still unforgivably embarrassing: unidirectional in its thrust, clunking in its exposition of Christian catechism - read Pope Benedict XVI's excellent encyclical Deus Caritas Est for an infinitely more sophisticated (and arguably more dramatic) take on the same dilemma - and horribly stilted in its unravelling. And you won't even begin to be able to iron out these mammoth creases if you start with a dalek as your leading man.

Early Wagner it may be but as a play Tannhäuser is still unforgivably embarrassing

Share this article

Comments

You're a brave man, Igor, but it certainly needed saying. And when the voice is secure but little else, one really does need to ask if the dramatic price is worth paying.

How shallow, but in todays "triviality obsessed UK" what can one expect ...... have you forgotten the size of the great man Pavarotti? This ungainly Tannhäuser, forlorn and alone in his chair, elicited far more empathy than would otherwise have been the case had he been blundering around the stage exchanging luscious smoozes with his love object as is so often the case in current productions, witness Adriana - all done for the cameras of course. For me it was Botha's awkwardness that made him all the more the outsider in the dark world he inhabited. And ultimately the voice as a heldontenor did not disappoint.

Oh dear Igor, your unrelenting bitchiness towards an internationally acclaimed singer of Botha's class is rather sad. I thought his voice was beautiful and thrilling and like the characterisation. So does Bychkov who doesn't think there's another tenor around who could last the full opera. Go to a ballet or a catwalk rather than the opera stage if you want an anorexic experience.

What a pointless, personalised review. Arts Desk - I could do better - I'd actually say somehing useful about the performance instead of being petty, sly and trying to score points. I'd love to see Igor T-L coming anyway close to what Mr Botha can do, but then again, he perhaps didn't do his research to find that Bychkov has said that Botha is one of the few poeple in the world he wanted to work with on this role. Nasty...bitter...pointless. I suggest he sticks to reviewing 'Legally Blonde'.

Mr Toronyi-Lalic you are a blinkered, disrespectful and utterly tedious philistine. The Arts Desk should be ashamed to give your turgid ramblings public exposure.

One, Legally Blonde is like a totally awesome movie. Two, for those who think that personality and presence ought to come second to voice and stamina, I call Wagner to my defence. Who was Wagner's favourite singer? Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who Wagner described as having ‘no voice at all’. Instead Schröder-Devrient ‘let a true womanly soul stream forth’ so that ‘we never thought of either voice or singing’.

errr, you're digging yourself deeper. As noted ...personality and presence were available...just not the kind you obviously like aka Legally Blonde! (awesome?) Maybe start watching more International Cinema to help refine your sensibility of what is "personality and presence" Igor......

Bitchiness can work very well, Mr Toronyi-Lalic, but the standard of your writing doesn't justify it.

One of the worst attempts at a review I have ever read. From the playground bully style, to the total lack of substance regarding the work itself. Please bow out gracefully and let someone with some maturity write the reviews.

The bitchiness of the comments far exceeds the "bitchiness" of the critic.

Boy am I glad I didnt read that before going to see that wonderful production today (2 Jan). Didnt the reviewer pick up the fact that the orgiastic ballet included suggestions of eating as well as nookie? That's why Tannhauser is so fat! Why does he sit to sing? Because he's shagged out that's why!

Igor's peurile ramblings do the Arts Desk no favours at all. Please put us out of our misery and replace him with someone with more artistic judgement- Katie Price, perhaps.

I saw the last performance of this production and found it completely shattering and deeply moving. I'd rather hear Botha sing this role than anyone else singing today. Astonishing singing by any standards.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters