Festival Opera

Tannhauser Usher Hall,


Keith Bruce

four stars

THE final arrivals from the Deutsche Oper Berlin were just a nail-biting few hours before this performance of Wagner’s four-hour epic began, a train journey from London replacing a cancelled flight. Few in the well-filled auditorium would be aware of that, however, and nothing in the quality of the performances gave it away.

Among those who were last to join the Edinburgh-born Music Director of the German company, Sir Donald Runnicles and the orchestra and chorus was American soprano Irene Roberts, who sang the role of Venus for the first time after just a few hours’ sleep. She, baritone Thomas Lehman (as Wolfram), Austrian bass Albert Pesendorfer (as the Landgrave), and English soprano Emma Bell (singing Elisabeth), made the composer’s medieval morality tale a dramatic event as well as a sumptuous musical experience.

The same could not be said of her countryman Clay Hilley’s Tannhauser, however. Hilley – who was not among the delayed travellers – has a fine tenor voice, and one that was as strong at the end of what is one of the most demanding works in the operatic canon, but he was reliant on reading the score and a music stand to put it on.

As his role was no last-minute jump-in (there is a full page portrait of him in the Festival brochure), it did seem poor that he had failed to learn it and the muted applause for his bow at the end reflected that.

But even a Tannhauser who was not “off the book” could not seriously damage the night. Although the work does not have the sophisticated structure of Wagner’s later operas, it does contain some of his best-loved music, from the established concert piece of the overture onwards.

With a substantial contingent of RSNO players augmenting the German orchestra, the instrumental music was flawless, and the Chorus of Deutsche Oper Berlin was heard to best advantage in this concert performance, as impressive in their quieter moments as when they really let rip.

Their Pilgrim’s Chorus was a highlight, as was Lehman’s account of Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star, but at the curtain call it was Roberts and Bell who were cheered to the rafters. As was, of course, local hero Sir Donald. Big nights like this are meat and drink to this conductor and he delivered a musical banquet with his customary flair.