REVIEW: Tannhäuser at Longborough

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Tenor John Treleaven

Preston Witts reviews Tannhäuser, Longborough Festival Opera, Thursday, 9th June

YET again Longborough Festival Opera has set the bar high in its celebration of the genius of Wagner with its production of Tannhäuser as the opening work of its 2016 season.

Since the festival began 18 years ago it has been a champion of this revolutionary 19th century German master, frequently performing operas from The Ring cycle — and indeed all four of them in 2013 — together with Tristan and Isolde last year. And it still has room for glorious offerings from Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, et al.

It is a great credit to Martin and Lizzie Graham that they had the vision and commitment to convert a cowshed on their land, just outside this Cotswold village, into an opera house that has become a magnet every summer for opera lovers and their friends.

Above all, Longborough is now synonymous with high-class Wagner, and Wagnerians from all over the country make a regular pilgrimage to this idyllic location in order to get their required ‘fix’ of their hero’s music.

And with this year’s performance of Tannhäuser — which opened the season on Thursday, 9th June — they will not have been disappointed. The voices were well up to the rigorous demands of Wagner, and with Anthony Negus in charge of the orchestra we were in the company of one of the greatest Wagner conductors of our time. (Negus is, after all, a protégé of the late British Wagner specialist Reginald Goodall.)

Tannhäuser is one of Wagner’s early operas and is an exploration of the conflict between spiritual and temporal love — the deeper love of the spirit and the shallow love, or lust, of the flesh.

But in a typical romantic twist, Wagner sets the shallow and lustful locale of this drama in the realm of a fantasy — that of the goddess Venus — with the spiritual or ‘good’ love set firmly in the world of mere mortals, the one occupied by Venus’s love rival, Elisabeth, (if a goddess can have a rival!).

In the title role of Tannhäuser, the tenor John Treleaven (on the first night) gave a creditable portrayal of a man in psychological torment, desperate to escape the seductive clutches of Venus, and return to his mortal life but finding, ultimately, that he was at peace with neither the allure of the goddess nor the world to which he returned. This is a demanding role for any singer and Mr Treleaven acquitted himself well, though there were moments when his voice seemed to be tested to its limits.

Alison Kettlewell as Venus came across as a classic Wagnerian female, appearing to be well-acquainted with the vocal range and sheer stamina required of the character she was playing. She was also exceptionally well cast as a sexy seductress. Her costume alone gave full vent — if you’ll pardon the pun — to her shapely legs…

Other excellent performances were given by Erika Mädi Jones as Elisabeth, and Donald Thomson (a great bass) as her uncle Hermann. Particular mention should also be made of Hrólfur Sæmundsson as Wolfram von Eschenbach and of the chorus of this production — both male and female — as well as the director, Alan Privett.

The set, too, is interesting. Designed by Kjell Torriset, it makes a fairly unmistakable allusion to the paintings of Caspar David Freidrich (1774-1840), with its stark tree branch depicting a primitive cosmic force (entirely appropriate in the context of the universal dilemma explored by the opera).

Tannhäuser finishes tonight (Friday, 18th June). John Treleaven has been alternating the title role with Neal Cooper. It is followed by Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart, starting on Sunday, 26th June. This is followed by Jenůfa by Leos Janacek, which starts on Saturday, 16th July. The season is rounded off by two performances of Alcina by Handel on 30th and 31st July.