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

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Orgy is the main highlight of the action – I’m guessing here – the ultimate frustration. Fortunately, Wagner’s TannhäuserIt is just theatre, which sails with a long bacchanalian frenzy, as the Royal Opera House production, directed by Tim Albery and new in 2010, strongly reminds us. The center stage features a proscenium arch, replicating the gold and crimson of ROH itself. Art and life collide: literally here. Hours before the opening of this second revival, Stefan Vinke became ill from singing the title role.

Nobly he walked the part, including fortunately a lot of sitting down, with the Austrian tenor Norbert Ernst singing from the side. Very unequal, to which Wagner himself greatly contributed, Tannhäuser depending on the quality of its singers to yank it out of the putrid bog of desire, or the swamp of religion. We have Ernst to thank for enabling the production, directed by Sebastian Weigle, to go ahead.

He sang the role in Wuppertal, but his best efforts could not produce the desired heroic vocal thrill. You can ask, why there is no understudy, but it is unworkable to stand in at the standard of Covent Garden for a role that some people in the world can sing. (Try asking Djokovic to hang around in case Nadal has problems).

We still had a good debut, choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon: a mesmerizing, acrobatic looper, fearlessly performed on a long table, out and about by 12 dancers. Venus (Ekaterina Gubanova), as a nightclub hostess in sparkling Lurex, was impressive, but this underdeveloped role does not give much. There was a lot to be happy about though. The chorus of the Royal Opera (conductor William Spaulding), as suffering pilgrims or the people of Wartburg, sang with an impeccable ensemble and a rich tonal variety, often disturbed almost inaudibly. The orchestra too, one nervous string aside, was superb, always attentive to the Italian scoring of this early Wagner. (The “Paris performance” of 1861, used here, includes music written nearly two decades earlier.)

Two excellent singers gave respectable performances. Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, as Elisabeth, displayed majestic vocal power, as well as a subtle intelligence, adding complexity to this “good woman” role. Davidsen has flourished since his first appearance on the opera scene just eight years ago (having won 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 flawless knight, who fights to save his friend at the cost of his own happiness. His speech to the evening star (O du, mein holder Abendstern) remains the high point of the opera, beautifully delivered by the ever eloquent Finley. The wonderful Landgrave Mika Kares, young Shepherd Sarah Dufresne and Walther Egor Zhuravskii stood out. This is a lugubrious production, a bleak, war-torn landscape in Michael Levine’s designs, but still worth the effort to see – especially in its entirety, with Vinke back in the lead role. It is an advantage that the Tiffin Boys’ Choir is present, at the end, just as the Pope’s staff is sprucing up green leaves. Don’t ask. This is Wagner.

The classical world is slowly rebuilding itself after Covid, with careful reformation and realignment, whether deliberate or forced by economics. Changes of leadership or music director are taking place in Birmingham, Bournemouth and Manchester. Radio 3 has announced a new controller, Sam Jackson, who is partially relocating to Salford. There have been many events and happenings at two major venues in London, the Barbican and the Southbank. For now, we welcome the first season at the Southbank which is entirely programmed by Toks Dada, the leader of classical music.

An early start, and an audience of all ages, brought a pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason‘ concert with the Maxwell Quartet fresh mood, with the help of an unusual store. The best known work was Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No 2 in C minor (1845), a prelude for two quintets: the work of Eleanor Alberga Clouds for piano quintet (1984), written as a dance score and full of strange rhythmic games and crazy textures; and Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor Ernő Dohnányi, Op 1 (1895), a student work, impenetrable and irresistible, with wonderful and beautiful solos for viola and cello. Kanneh-Mason was at the heart of the music composition, being an astute chamber musician unrepresented by her fellow musicians – a winning combination of her youth and quartet 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 country, steered a treacherous path between suppressing and practicing his faith. Byrd’s Secret Game, “immersed phased mass”, held in the burning candles of Saint Martin in the Fields. Owain Park directed the Gesualdo He in Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, with violin music by Fretwork: both excellent early music ensembles, performing with effortless perfection. You could walk around in near darkness and follow the action. Or you could sit, listen and imagine.

Star ratings (out of five)
Isata Kanneh-Mason & Maxwell Quartet
Byrd’s Secret Game

  • Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House, London, until 16 February

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