Prom 29: Tannhäuser – review

Royal Albert Hall, London

Donald Runnicles, chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, is also general music director at Berlin's Deutsche Oper, and for his Prom performance of Wagner's Tannhäuser he combined both jobs by using his Glasgow-based orchestra and his German chorus. The latter proved to be the heroes of the evening.

The work is dominated by its choruses, which throw the psychological crises of its protagonists into sharp relief and underscore the opera's wider conflict between sex and spirit. Everything here was wonderfully characterised and controlled. The grand but vacuous processionals at the Landgrave's court offset the Pilgrims' unsentimental fervour and the sated languor of Venus's nymphs. The richness of tone was exceptional, the ecstatic quality of the final scenes breathtaking. Revelatory stuff, it earned the chorus the most enthusiastic reception of the evening.

Much of the rest was comparably glorious. Wagner never produced a definitive score of Tannhäuser; Runnicles gave us the fullest possible version, using the so-called Paris score, but also restoring the cuts Wagner made to the 1845 original. Interpretatively, he doesn't go to extremes after the fashion of Keilberth or Solti, though he illuminates the complex relationship between flesh and spirit with great finesse. The playing was beautifully clear and sensuous.

Vocally, things were uneven, the principal drawback being Robert Dean Smith's Tannhäuser. As always, you admire his stamina, and Runnicles, careful with balance in Wagner, never allowed the BBCSSO to drown him out. But he sounded tired, and there were moments of ungainliness in his duet with Heidi Melton's finely sung (if at times undercharacterised) Elisabeth. The great performances came from Christoph Pohl's handsomely lyrical Wolfram, Daniela Sindram's manipulative Venus and Ain Anger's moralistic Hermann, all of them exceptional.

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Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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