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Tannhäuser

Longborough Festival Opera

*****

OPERA North, Welsh National Opera and London’s two principal companies all play their part in bringing Wagner, intermittently, to the English stage.

Indeed Opera North’s much-praised Ring cycle has just reached completion, and been seen in Leeds, Salford, Nottingham and other venues.

But there is one venue which surely holds the torch for Wagner productions. It is the ‘English Bayreuth’, the much-praised at Longborough, near Stow-on-the-Wold.

Longborough has always seemed something of a miracle among opera companies. Some 18 years ago, Martin and Lizzie Graham launched the first of their Ring cycles, using initially - to grveniseat effect - the reduced version by Jonathan Dove.

By 2014, when they had brought to fruition the (I think) third of their complete cycles, and were moving on to Tristan and Isolde, their catchment had extended far and wide. The audience is lured from great distances to catch the latest offering of this by now renowned ‘English Bayreuth’.

A battle with the planners, which the Grahams won, enabled them to map out plans for the future. Longborough is a long-term fixture, and still as exciting and attractive as ever.

Alison Kettlewell as Venus. Pictures: Matthew Williams-Ellis

Everything about Longborough is appealing. It can be reached via the Fosse Way, turning off either before or just after Stow-on-the-Wold. Alternatively, from Oxford or Broadway and Evesham direction.

Gradually a quite modest structure - a simple barn adorned with superfluous crimson-coloured seats obtained from Covent Garden - has been expanded with buildings and follies that would do Capability Brown proud. The auditorium has enlarged its upper layers into a swathe of comfortable boxes, circling the whole interior. The orchestra pit, initially modest, is now big enough to house an orchestra of truly Wagnerian dimensions.

It’s possible to hear Mozart, Handel, Britten, Janacek and others at Longborough, often directed and conducted by the ever-inventive team of Richard Studer and Jonathan Lyness, or the ingenious Thomas Guthrie, who shares this season’s new Figaro with Robert Houssart.

But the senior team is undoubtedly Alan Privett and conductor Anthony Negus, who this year moved on from an acclaimed Tristan (with Rachel Nicholls and Peter Wedd) to a brand new Tannhäuser.

This was a production in which the singing proved endlessly rewarding. Whom to praise first? The two leads, obviously. But before them, two absolutely riveting performances from among the Minnesingers, the group of masterly vocal performers to whom Tannhäuser, before his disappearance to dally with Venus, belonged.

Donald Thomson as Duke Hermann, the Thuringian landgrave (the action is based in what used to be East Germany) brought such a noble dignity and rich bass tone to the role that he revealedwolfrom all the qualities of a top-class Sarastro. This was a performance to treasure.

And especially by the Second and Third Acts, the Icelander Hrólfur Sæmundsson’s Wolfram von Eschenbach (the Fischer-Dieskau role), desperate to divert the errant Tannhäuser from returning to his old ways and restore his Christian sense of duty, brought such passion and also elegance to his arias he proved one of the highlights of the entire evening.

Hrólfur Sæmundsson as Wolfram von Eschenbach

But the same can be said for the remaining Minnesingers - Charles Johnston’s visibly engaged Renmar van Zweter stood out vocally, clearly audible amid the textures - and the entire female and male chorus (trained superbly by Philip White), whether wafting mystically like restrained Rhine Maidens or delivering with character the Pilgrims’ chorus and the other vigorous chanting related to it.

Longborough excelled itself here - now sporting a fully sized ensemble of 24 singers, producing a fresh and exciting, and involving, sound, and enhancing hugely the allure and attractiveness of  a score that has occasional longueurs.

Alison Kettlewell sang Venus, an entrapping Circe figure, in a fetching costume but with an even more fetching voice. Her launch, in low register, was absolutely searing: a thrilling sound which made one’s nerves tingle. Her efforts to retain Tannhäuser within her power (contrast his ‘I can’t remain your slave. I would find peace through repentance’) produced a moving riposte: ‘How have I deserved this?’, in which an obligato clarinet produced a meltingly beautiful effect to support the wheedling goddess.

On the subject of obbligato, the wonderful Act I scene with the young Shepherd (Chiara Vinci), sumptuously accompanied at side of stage by a plangent cor anglais, incredibly moving, was one of the highights. But the solo instrument touches from the endlessly impressive Longborough Festival Orchestra stood out time and again: solo oboe, not least, early on, and later an ensemble of cellos; but also harp accompanied by reduced strings for Wolfram, and some mesmerising touches for French horn, including a kind of evocative envoi closing Act I.

Erika Mädi Jones made Elisabeth a full-blooded character: not merely pious (which of course she is), but forceful and persuasive, not afraid to intervene, so that it is something of a surprise that she is not successful in bringing Tannhäuser to shed his wayward lifestyle.

Elisabeth’s exquisite prayer to the Virgin, with clarinet again in accompaniment, all somewhat hymnic, was Landgrafnotably touching; just as earlier, in Act II, her intense conversation with her uncle and guardian, Thomson’s serenely noble Landgrave, yielded a passionate exchange which led up to a large scale chorus of both sexes, with fast moving strings hastening the urgent narrative along. The chorus ‘The will of heaven’, taken at an impressively slow pace by conductor Anthony Negus, was all the more striking for its slow unravelling.

Donald Thomson as Landgraf Hermann

Of the cast, this leaves us with John Treleaven, who shared the role of the vexed lead with (on two nights) Neal Cooper. Treleaven is a Wagnerian of real distinction, who has made Tristan his own in many of the great European opera houses, not least Verona, Hamburg and Berlin. He cuts a weighty figure, ponderous, lumbering, but intense and involving as he struggles with his past misdemeanours, his betrayal of his colleagues and his deep-seated yearning to put things right.

Even in Act I he introduces or anticipates the Pilgrims’ music (‘The burden of my sins is intolerable’). It is as if his long sojourn with Venus and her sex-craving maidens has been not so much a commitment on his part as a protracted experiment. When the male chorus surges forth for the first time, effectively counterpointed, it is so pleading and impassioned - just as effective as the previous female ensemble - that one sees what a fix he is in. 

Direction and Set Design were sensible and unostentatious; especially effective in marshalling and locating the larger ensembles. One would perhaps pick out Lights designer Ben Ormerod, who from the seductive opening Venus scene, swathed in sensual reds and pinks, captured the flavour at many points in the action.

But the hero of this Tannhäuser, as with all of Longborough’s musically adroit Wagner productions from the outset, is conductor Anthony Negus. Tannhäuser sports some extremely lengthy preludes, and Negus’s skill at maintaining pace and definition, at teasing out the most subtle solo work from deep within the textures, and by careful balances ensuring that no detail is wasted or lost, stood out here just as they did in all of the challenging Ring cycles seen at Longborough hitherto, and which reached perhaps their apex in 2015’s Tristan and the 2014-completed cycle. T0 18-06-16

Roderic Dunnett

06-16 

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