Tannhäuser is one of the less performed of the Wagner operas, usually; but on the evidence of this production at Longborough it deserves more attention for its libretto and its music. It is actually one of the most accessible operas for neophyte Wagnerians; and the simple sets and straightforward concept have been much appreciated by the audiences this summer who have cheered at the end of virtually every performance. I have my quibbles with some aspects of the production; and some of the singing has been uneven; but overall this production made me feel in touch with the work itself again and makes me want to hear and see this opera more often and in varying interpretations.
Anthony Negus is turning into one of the finest of Wagnerian conductors anywhere. Wagner reworked Tannhäuser often enough that there is no really definitive version and I quite liked the choices that Negus made for this performing edition, except I would have preferred him not to cut the song contest as he did.
I was fortunate to see this production with both John Treleaven and Neal Cooper in the title role. I have to report that on the night I attended to see John Treleaven’s assumption of the role he was struggling with the top of his voice and some of his intonation in the first two acts of the opera was uncomfortable. I think this distracted him from being fully involved in his interpretation. However, by the time we returned from the 90-minute picnic interval that is the tradition at Longborough, Treleaven had found his stride and was both musically and dramatically convincing, especially in the splendid Rome narration. Indeed, he was very moving in his suffering and tortured confusion. By contrast, Neal Cooper was a worthy and totally committed Tannhäuser throughout, very appealing as a character, absolutely the centre of the evening. The night I saw him he sang with a gleaming tone and great understanding and projection of the words. He was completely the struggling, heroic, erotically driven artist/singer/poet.
I was less convinced by the director’s and costume designer’s interpretation of Venus as a Soho prostitute. I think that Venus is in some senses meant to be a Muse for Tannhäuser and not just some sort of voracious sex kitten; and that she should represent not the sexually explicit and titillating porno approach but something more subtly erotic and even subconscious, a kind of embodiment of Tannhauser’s quest. I always preferred productions where Venus and Elisabeth were sung by the same soprano, as Gwynneth Jones used to do. That said, Alison Kettlewell certainly has the vocal heft and voluptuous sound for the role and I would love to see her in a different interpretation that gives her a chance to be more psychologically subtle and warm.
The rest of the cast verged constantly on the outstanding. It is, perhaps, easier to do when you are not only projecting into a smaller space that seats about 500 but when also the orchestra pit is covered, Bayreuth style. I pay tribute to Eirka Mädi Jones, a sweet Elisabeth who was vocally radiant at times and who was also firm and not cloying; Hrolfur Saemundsson, who delivered his role with consistent warmth and sang a brilliant solo in the third act; and Donald Thomson as a solid, dignified Hermann. I think that the modernist sets gave a suitable backdrop for the opera; that the multi-period costuming made interesting points about the story; and that the lighting by Ben Ormerod added greatly to the atmosphere of the presentation.
Lots of people insist that Longborough is trying to create a new Glyndebourne – but it is only superficially as Glyndebourne might have been in the 1930s at this stage. However, it is the same kind of experience of opera for well-heeled toffs in a country house and grounds setting; it is worthily ambitious in the artistic approach it takes; and it makes for a fine day out. Also the productions and casting have considerable merit.
The Longborough approach to Wagner is becoming increasingly interesting and developed. They have done a somewhat reduced yet much appreciated Ring and a very successful Tristan und Isolde. As is common nowadays, they perform in the original language with subtitles at the sides. The orchestra seems to go from strength to strength and not only the setting of the grounds but also the actual, small theatre are charming.
Longborough still does not play its operas in repertoire so you have to look and book ahead. Each opera has its own 4 – 6 performance run. Still coming up this summer are Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Janacek’s Jenufa and Handel’s Alcina all of which, on paper at least, field interesting singers, conductors and production teams.
The focus at Longborough is always on the work itself, on real ensemble playing; and despite constraints of budget the performances are almost invariably at the very least strong and sometimes revelatory. Their programming is always pleasantly varied. Next year, for instance, there will not only be a revival of their fine Tristan und Isolde but productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice – and the small theatre and lovely grounds surrounding the opera house should be perfect places for seeing all of these. Futhermore, you will also almost always hear singers and conductors who either should be better known or will be very soon.