Tannhäuser is the most problematic of the official canon of Wagner’s music dramas. At its Dresden premiere in 1845, it opened the door to world of Wagner’s maturity, but his imagination and technique could not entirely rise to the Venus scenes in Act 1. Fifteen years later he rewrote this section for its 1861 Paris premiere; Tristan had just been finished and the unbridled sensuality of the newly composed sections was clothed in Wagner’s most advanced chromatic style.

<i>Tannhäuser</i> © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Tannhäuser
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Yet despite this (and a later 1875 revision for Vienna), the libretto remains problematic: the struggle of the medieval Minnesinger Tannhäuser between sensual and spiritual love and his eventual redemption. Its black and white emotional trajectory and period religiosity makes it the least comfortable Wagnerian experiences for present day audiences. Yet, in the right hands, such as the new production that opened this year’s Longborough Festival Opera last night, Tannhäuser remains a thrilling musical and dramatic experience, full of some of the younger Wagner’s most vital music.

For some years now Longborough, tucked away in the Gloucestershire’s Cotswolds, has been quietly building an impressive Wagnerian tradition under Anthony Negus, who conducted this new production. His Götterdämmerung, for Longborough in 2012, was one of the most remarkable interpretations I’ve heard of that score and last night’s performance displayed many of the same qualities. Aided by the intimacy of Longborough’s small auditorium, orchestral textures took on a remarkable transparency and lightness of tone. The ear was constantly assailed by details and felicities of phrasing that usually pass for nothing in many performances: this felt like Wagner viewed from the classical perspective of Beethoven, rather than from the opposite end of Strauss and Mahler. Every note formed part of an organic part whole, underpinned by an ever-present awareness of the importance of the bass.

John Treleaven (Tannhäuser) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
John Treleaven (Tannhäuser)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Negus somehow bridged the stylistic chasm between the Dresden and Paris versions, so that one was scarcely aware of where one began and the other left off (something one is usually all too painfully aware of). This was a Tannhäuser light on its feet, the tempi pre-dominantly brisk and rhythmically incisive, its energy emerging naturally from within, due to careful articulation of individual parts. The same also came across in many of the big ensembles in the latter half of Act 1 and throughout Act 2, where singers listened and balanced with one another, creating a genuine interaction of different emotional statements.

The intimacy of Longborough also brings the relationships between the orchestra and voice into particular relief. This was not the kind of big voice production one hears in large scale houses, but a closer and more immediate experience. The parts of the Landgrave and the minnesingers were striking for the beauty of the young focused voices, so important to this ensemble opera. Donald Thomson’s darkly hued Landgrave was impressive as was Hrólfur Sæmundsson’s elegantly sung Wolfram. Julian Hubbard (Walther), Stuart Pendred (Biterolf), Brian Smith Walters (Heinrich) and Charles Johnston (Reinmar) in the smaller minnesinger parts each made splendidly individual contributions. The small disciplined chorus (the men often processing through the auditorium itself) brought a fresh athletic quality to Wagner’s writing, particularly in the thrilling second act.

Erika Mädi Jones (Elizabeth) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Erika Mädi Jones (Elizabeth)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis
Alison Kettlewell’s Venus and Erika Mädi Jones’s Elizabeth could not be more contrasted; the dark intensity of Venus’s opening phrases were one of the highlights of the performance, but the sheer musical and dramatic intensity with which the part of Elizabeth was delivered was, I suspect, one of the things most people will take away from this performance. John Treleaven’s Tannhäuser was something of a curate’s egg. It was a performance of huge intensity: a man tormented beyond control by his conflicting emotions which, at the close of Act 2 almost tipped over into hysteria. But one was acutely aware of the strain on the voice: he was often very beautiful in the quieter lyrical passages, but the voice could become distressingly ragged with a distracting slow beat in the many strenuous passages.

Kjell Torriset’s designs were functional and, at their most austere, strikingly beautiful in Act 3, such as the few skeletal tree branches, whose constantly changing light reflected the ebb and flow of the drama. But at other times one struggled to make sense of an ever-present and, in terms of the action, redundant ladder or, in Act 3 a pile of old books. There was the usual mix of different periods in the costumes: 1840s frock coats for the Landgrave and minnesingers, fifteenth century-like headscarves for the women’s chorus and everyday modern work clothes for the pilgrims.

Alan Provett’s direction often lay at the service of the drama unobtrusively making sense of the complex grouping throughout the opera. It was sometimes at its most obtrusive early on when, throughout the overture, John Treleaven was on stage as Wagner, at his desk, acting out a wordless drama with, presumably, his wife (Mina?) who later was transformed, in the first scene, into Venus, sensually swinging, Fragonard- like, back and forth. But this is essentially a wonderful production, revealing like few others the inner musical content of Wagner’s vision.

****1