Prom 29: BBC SSO / Runnicles at Royal Albert Hall, London *****

Donald Runnicles
music OMH

By Christian Hoskins

Barely a week after the conclusion of Wagner’s complete Ring cycle under Daniel Barenboim, the celebration of the composer’s bicentenary at the BBC Proms resumed with this semi-staged presentation of Tannhäuser. Given the exalted quality of the interpretations of the four Ring operas, this presentation of Wagner’s not entirely convincing earlier opera risked seeming an anticlimax. Not so, however, thanks to the splendid performance by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

As with the Ring, a notable feature of this Tannhäuser was the quality of the conducting and playing. From the exciting account of the overture onwards, Runnicles directed a compelling and strongly characterised account of the score. Superbly balanced and wonderfully translucent, the BBCSSO contributed playing of unflagging commitment from beginning to end. The numerous offstage instruments, including cor anglais and horns in Act I, trumpets in Act II and percussion in Act III, were thrillingly rendered.

The role of Tannhäuser was performed by the American tenor Robert Dean Smith, who had also sung Tristan the previous weekend. Smith does not have a large voice, but sang with sensitivity and musicality, maintaining one’s sympathy for the character throughout the opera. The German mezzo-soprano Daniela Sindram was a powerful and seductive Venus, although with a tendency to sacrifice articulation for warmth of tone. The American soprano Heidi Melton provided a pure and radiant Elisabeth, missing only the last degree of inwardness in her Act III prayer ‘Allmächt’ege Jungfrau’.

Among the other characters, Christoph Pohl was a strong, noble and articulate Wolfram while the young Israeli soprano Hila Fahima was memorable as the Shepherd Boy. The most significant vocal contribution amongst these, however, came from the portrayal of the Landgrave by Estonian bass Ain Anger, whose sonorous, firm voice filled the hall seemingly with capacity to spare.

For the most part, Runnicles directed a performance of the so-called Paris version of the opera, but included a number of additions from the 1845 Dresden version of the score, notably Walther’s contribution to the song competition in Act II, given a firm delivery by the tenor Thomas Blondelle.

Whether portraying the nymphs in Venusburg, the guests at the court of the Landgrave or the pilgrims in their humble fervour, the contribution of the 100 strong singers of the Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin was outstanding. Their sonorous, idiomatic and heartfelt singing, especially in the pilgrims’ music in Act III, was unforgettable.