It is said that it is the eye of the owner that keeps cattle fat. Kirsten Harms has barely left the direction of the Deutsche Oper and her production of Tannhäuser starts to decay – the relatively silent stage contraptions are now quite noisy, lighting was erratic, stage elevators were poorly used and those who were operating the stage ropes were not really sure which props should be lowered on stage (at a certain point, the safety curtain was lowered by mistake…). Maybe it was just an impression, but the second act’s singing competition has now a great deal of gags.
In any case, although the musical performance had its share of tiny glitches, Donald Runnicles offered a commendable account of the score. Conducting Wagner with small-scaled singers is a challenging affair – one the Deutsche Oper’s Musical Director has often failed to meet – but not this evening. The house orchestra played with fine focus and a lighter sound bright enough to have presence, and the maestro never missed the right opportunities to unleash his musicians when this should and could be done. Moreover, Tannhäuser is a specialty of the Deutsche Oper chorus – their singing alone is worth the trip to Charlottenburg. This is the third time I’ve heard them in this opera and it has been consistently excellent. The choristers were not alone in providing great singing this evening – Markus Brück is probably the finest Wolfram in the market these days. I have recently seen Goerne and Gerhaher in this role and, sensitively as they both sing the Abendstern song, Brück provides richness and roundness of tone without loss of ductility and flexibility and still avoids any hint of affectation. To make things better, he has a sizable voice and can hold his own against any Heldentenor. Not that this was necessary this evening.
The first time I have heard of Robert Gambill was in Bruno Weil’s recording of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in which he sang Pedrillo. He could be seen next as Lindoro in Gelmetti’s DVD of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. Then, in 1999, he was singing Tannhäuser with Barenboim in the Staatsoper. Before he was billed as Siegmund and Tristan, he could record Graun’s Cesare and Cleopatra with René Jacobs – he even did a very good job with trills back then. I had tried to see his Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper, but he canceled twice. I had never seen him live before this evening, but I like the sound of his voice and his Mozartian background made me curious. Yes – it is a beautiful voice, not a dramatic one yet large enough, he can phrase with Mozartian poise and has excellent diction. All that below a high f. From that note upwards, he suffers from some sort of misconception that involves too backwards a placement, resulting an opaque and unstable sound that fails to pierce through. He has admirable stamina and by virtue of a steely breath support pushes his way through – but he predictably soon got tired. Things got so perilous that I was expecting for a replacement, but one has to concede Gambill something: he never gives up and very rarely cheats. I have seen healthier Tannhäusers who “forget” to sing some impossible notes during the concertati in the ends of act I and II, but not Gambill. Although he sounded tired, had to chop his phrases to get an extra helping of air, pecked at high notes mid-phrase, could be below true pitch in exposed acuti and finally employed a lot of acting with the voice, this tenor did sing more or less everything Wagner wrote. I just wonder if he enjoys this experience – not even Jon Vickers tried Tannhäuser (does anyone believe that whole “immorality” story?!). Why not Lohengrin? Walther?
I am not sure if Wagner is Manuela Uhl’s repertoire either. Her voice is too high for Elisabeth and, hard-pressed by having to produce a Wagnerian sound, it comes across as acidulous and fluttery. She could not find dynamic variety and sang a quite insensitive prayer in the last act. You can imagine by yourselves how her Venus was. Reinhard Hagen is always a reliable Landgraf and Thomas Blondelle’s Walther had no problem in presiding over ensembles, a lesson to his Tannhäuser: beefing up high notes is a very poor replacement for natural tonal brightness.