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

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An orgy with the main stud out of action is, I suppose, the ultimate frustration. Fortunately, Wagner TannhauserOpening in a prolonged bacchanalian frenzy, is nothing more than theater, as the Royal Opera House production, directed by Tim Albery and new for 2010, reminds us emphatically. Center stage is a proscenium arch, a replica of the ROH’s own gold and crimson. Art and life collide head-on: literally here. Hours before the premiere of this second revival, Stefan Vinke, ill, withdrew from the lead role.

He gracefully walked the role, which thankfully includes a lot of sitting, with Austrian tenor Norbert Ernst singing alongside. Dramatically uneven, heavily manipulated by Wagner himself, Tannhauser she trusts the quality of her singers to get her out of the putrid swamp of desire, or the swamp of religiosity. We have Ernst to thank for allowing the performance, directed by Sebastian Weigle, to go ahead.

He has sung the role in Wuppertal, but his best efforts could not produce the necessary heroic vocal emotion. You may wonder why there isn’t an understudy, but having a standard Covent Garden understudy for a role few people in the world can sing is unfeasible. (Try asking Djokovic to stay in case Nadal has hamstring issues.) That said, the effect of a voice coming from one place and a person lip-syncing like a goldfish from another can create some uncanny comedy.

We still had a good orgy, choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon: a mesmerizing, acrobatic revelry, fearlessly performed inside, outside and around a long table by 12 dancers. Venus (Ekaterina Gubanova), as a nightclub hostess in glittering Lurex, dominated, but this underdeveloped role is never quite fulfilled. However, there was much to savor. The Royal Opera Chorus (conductor William Spaulding), like consecrated pilgrims or Wartburg folk, sang with impeccable ensemble and rich tonal variety, often silent to almost inaudible. The orchestra too, aside from a flurry of nerve strings, was impressive, constantly alert and attentive to the Italianate-style score of this early Wagner. (The 1861 “Paris production” used here incorporates music written nearly two decades earlier.)

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

As Wolfram, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley brought out the pain and humanity of this blameless gentleman, 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 still point of the opera, beautifully rendered by the ever-eloquent Finley. Highlights included Mika Kares’ powerful Landgrave, Sarah Dufresne’s Young Shepherd and Egor Zhuravskii’s Walther. This is a grim production, a grim, war-torn landscape in Michael Levine’s designs, but it’s still worth making an effort to see, especially in its completed state, with Vinke back in the title role. A bonus is the presence, at the end, of the Tiffin Boys’ 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 a cautious review and realignment, either intentional or forced by the economy. Leadership or music director changes are underway in Birmingham, Bournemouth and Manchester. Radio 3, which is partly relocating to Salford, has announced a new controller, Sam Jackson. Two important places in London, the Barbican and the Southbank, have had many comings and goings. For now, we welcome the first season at the Southbank entirely programmed by Toks Dada, head of classical music.

An early start, and an audience of all ages, gave the pianist Isata Kanneh Masons concert with the Maxwell Quartet a fresh atmosphere, helped by an unusual repertoire. The best-known 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 like a dance score and full of wacky rhythmic games and bewitching hazy textures; and Ernő Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 1 (1895), a restless, irresistibly optimistic student work with remarkably beautiful viola and cello solos. Kanneh-Mason was at the heart of music-making, quiet, unimpressive chamber music at the same time as his fellow players: a winning combination of his youth and the quartet’s experience.

It’s too early in the year to accuse anyone of not noticing William Byrd’s 400th anniversary. This English Catholic composer, effectively exiled in his own Protestant land, took a treacherous route between repression and the practice of his religion. secret byrd, “an immersive stage mass”, took place in the candlelit crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Owain Park led the Gesualdo Six in Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, set to viola music by Fretwork: both elite early music ensembles perform with effortless perfection. You could walk in near darkness and follow the action. Or you could sit, listen and imagine.

Star Ratings (out of five)
Isata Kanneh-Mason and Maxwell Quartet
secret byrd

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

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