Michael Tanner

    Longborough’s Tannhäuser is a major relief after ENO’s abysmal Tristan

    Longborough's Tannhäuser is a major relief after ENO's abysmal Tristan
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    Longborough Festival Opera, until 18 June

    The Longborough phenomenon continues, indeed if anything gets more remarkable each year. This year they are tackling Wagner's least popular opera, Tannhäuser, and making it actually thrilling, at least when the title role is taken by Neal Cooper. There really is nothing to be done with parts of Tannhäuser except to get a move on, and that is what the great Wagnerian Anthony Negus does.

    This is one of the shortest performances I have seen or heard: since Wagner never got the opera into the shape he wanted, there are many possibilities, from his alterations over the years, for adding or subtracting a sizeable chunk. Usually these days we get the 1861 so-called Paris Venusberg music, an immense and obscene demonstration of why Tannhäuser yearns to get out into the fresh air, and then mostly what Wagner originally wrote for the work in Dresden.

    Negus conducted the original tame Venusberg scene. The scene between Tannhäuser and Venus is the only uninspired operatic music Wagner wrote – he clearly didn't believe in it. Alison Kettlewell did what she could with Venus's unalluring music, but the scene stagnated as it normally does. The ascent into the open was a great relief, the Shepherd Boy's music beautifully sung, though alas not by a boy. The rest of the act, with Heinrich reunited with his former comrades, is adorable, and came off with elan, so for once one emerged for the first interval exhilarated.

    Act II was a triumph. With very little space for the nobles, etc., to perform in, Alan Privett nonetheless staged it thrillingly, and Negus did an agreeably pared down version of the song contest, so that Tannhäuser's increasing impatience with the vapid platitudes of the other contestants could be understood without actually being shared.

    All the singers were at their finest: Erika Mädi Jones made, in all respects, a wonderful Elisabeth, without being either annoyingly virginal or too pushy. Both her vocal and acting abilities will, I hope, have been noted by agents. Presumably that is not necessary for Neal Cooper, though he has sung surprisingly few things at any of the major UK opera houses. He surely will be a leading tenor of the near future, with great looks, committed acting and a magnificent voice. He was tremendous throughout, but above all in the Act III narration, which had one hanging on his every desperate word.

    Some people find Privett's productions too simple, and indeed all he does is follow Wagner's directions as far as possible, not something jaded professionals can approve. For me this was one of the most satisfying performances of the work I have seen, and a major source of relief after ENO's abysmal Tristan.