Usher Hall, Edinburgh
It will be a shame if 2023’s big Wagner opera in concert at Nicola Benedetti’s first Festival becomes known as “the Tannhauser of the music stands”, but understandable. Not only did the titular tenor hero of the piece require one to rest his score on, but the one supporting the copy from which conductor Sir Donald Runnicles was working on the podium collapsed early in the evening and a front desk fiddle player abandoned her instrument to effect repairs while the music continued.
That incident did nothing to impair the performance, but the same cannot be said for Clay Hilley’s reliance on the music, which was clearly more than just an aide memoire. Understandably, when every other principal in the cast was singing from memory, he appeared self-conscious about it, and as soprano Emma Bell’s Elisabeth and baritone Thomas Lehman’s Wolfram began to use more of the available space at the front of the stage in their performances he looked more static as the tale unfolded.
In the final analysis, the rest of the ingredients more than compensated. Unlike previous concert Wagner operas at recent Festivals this was a visiting company production with all the principals, whatever their country of origin, associated with Deutsche Oper Berlin, who supplied the chorus and orchestra (augmented by players from the RSNO), where Runnicles is Music Director.
Like Hilley, many were singing their roles for the first time – and some were doing so on just a few hours’ sleep because of delays and cancellations in their travel arrangements. The vivacious Venus of Irene Roberts was among those and her angry responses to the grumbling home-sick Tannhauser were an early highlight. Both she and Bell brought the drama to the performance, alongside Lehman’s characterisation of Wolfram as a resigned narrator of the tale and Albert Pesendorfer’s authoritative Landgrave, but there was real strength in the smaller roles too, notably Meechot Marrero’s Young Shepherd, sung from the top of the organ gallery, and tenor Attilio Glaser’s contribution to the song contest as Walther.
With two dozen RSNO players involved on and off stage, the Berlin instrumentalists were superb, from the muted ensemble of the opening bars of the overture onwards, the winds joined by metronomic strings and expansive brass. The much-garlanded Deutsche Oper Chorus was also as magnificent as its reputation, and heard to better advantage here than would have been possible in a staged production.
Tannhauser is a work from which the highlights do leap out, and favourites like Elisabeth’s greeting to the Hall of Song, the Pilgrim’s Chorus and Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star were all superb, but ultimately it was the sensation of Runnicles leading an ensemble he knows inside out that made this Tannhauser, despite its superficial deficiencies, sensational.