Tom Sutcliffe on Verdi and Wagner


It had not occurred to me before, but seeing Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Verdi’s Don Carlo in close proximity provides a fascinating perspective on the Christianity about which both operas are deeply concerned. These are two very different works – Don Carlo (based on Schiller’s great play) is maturely political, while Tannhäuser is immaturely naive. Both are wonderful works, although the Wagner a little less astonishing and original than The Flying Dutchman which preceded it.

Verdi and Wagner were not enthusiastic churchmen. Wagner was musically influenced by the German Protestant musical tradition that Luther created and Bach furthered – the origin, no doubt, of those extended questing tunes heading into the unknown. Verdi, raised as a Roman Catholic, was profoundly anti-clerical and fiercely critical of the Church – especially in Don Carlo. I think both were christian with a small ‘c’ – like Mozart, who preferred the free-thinking Freemasons to the Archbishop of Salzburg.

Tannhäuser’s overture – the first record I bought – opens with an inspiring expansive hymn tune that stays in the head. It is music that describes the central Christian notion of pilgrimage in hope. Other sublime experiences are the betrayed Elizabeth’s redemptive prayer before she dies – as ravishingly meaningful as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s unforgettable hymn to the evening star, which follows it. Bars later Tannhäuser himself returns – way behind the pilgrim chorus – and, devastated, he sings of how the Pope has refused him forgiveness for his carnal sin of infatuation with Venus. It would be, the Pope said, as unlikely as the wooden Papal staff bursting into leaf. But then news comes that a miracle has happened. Elizabeth’s prayer has been answered: leaves have sprouted, and the sinful hero dies forgiven.

This was the work that the great Canadian Heldentenor Jon Vickers refused to sing at Covent Garden because he disapproved of the hero on moral and religious grounds. (He had sung the part of Don Carlo, who is in love with his stepmother, to whom he had been engaged before his father Philip II decided to marry her instead. I guess Vickers, a great Parsifal, wanted Tannhäuser to emulate Wagner’s most spiritual and Christian-seeming opera – which used to be treated as an act of piety at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival with no applause allowed. But if you cut Venus – whose music and dance troupe acquired added orgiastic pulsation at the Paris Opera to satisfy the Jockey Club wish to ogle ballerina’s legs – you cannot really tackle the topic that made the troubadours: love.

Longborough Opera Festival at Moreton-in-Marsh has been serving Tannhäuser well. Martin and Lizzie Graham’s opera house may be a converted chicken shed; but they had two worthwhile tenors for the title role, and I heard them both. John Treleaven was the star of Welsh National Opera in the 1980s (Pinkerton in Joachim Herz’s wonderful Madam Butterfly staging), and has since done lots of Wagner. His long aria in the final act about what happened to him in Rome was very well done. Neal Cooper, nephew of boxing champ Henry, also showed what he could do in this very demanding tenor role – and was starting to find the right mixture of legato and glowing heroic top notes in the Rome story. But there was also the very appealing Wolfram (Icelandic baritone Hrólfur Sæmundsson), and a superb deep resonant Landrave Hermann (Donald Thomson). Julian Hubbard was a good Walther von der Vogelweide, and Erika Mädi Jones disturbed and touching as Elizabeth. Standards were a bit rough in the acting and production; but the lack of pretension – and the naturalness and devotion in Alan Privett’s staging – delivered movingly what really matters, while Anthony Negus (former head of music at the Welsh National) is an always sensitive and serious Wagner maestro. A genuinely refreshing experience.

Verdi’s Don Carlo is a great opera because its characters and their predicaments are so realistically presented, with deep psychological insight provided in the way Verdi applies his music and in the music that he applies. Having seen the great Visconti staging at Covent Garden in the 1960s and the Luc Bondy production in the 1990s, which came to the Garden from the Châtelet in Paris, and having also seen Caballe and Corelli in the main roles at the Met in 1972 – all with casts that would be hard to match these days – I have to admit that I thought that Grange Park Opera was slackly conducted by Gianluca Marciano, and disappointing both as a theatre spectacle and as a musical experience. The chorus was minuscule – in a way that was much more destructive of the seriousness of the experience than the limited number of pilgrims in Longborough’s Tannhäuser. The centre of this opera is the burning of heretics. It’s a scene about which Verdi wants one to have very mixed feelings. There are all sorts of ambiguities throughout this subtle extraordinary work.

The designs were make-do, however, and the production by Jo Davies within them was only workaday. Clive Bayley is a singer I have long admired and liked; but he did not have the vocal stature for Philip II. Alastair Miles is also a fine artist of long standing; but just as he lacked the quality and character for the goldsmith Pogner in Glyndebourne’s disappointing Meistersinger revival, so equally he was unable to terrify with his voice as the Grand Inquisitor. Stefano Secco was a properly equipped Italian tenor in the title role – but he was at no point able to act the role convincingly. Ruxandra Donose as the tricky immoral Princess Eboli made a good meal of her great final aria, ‘O don fatale’; but Virginia Tola’s upper register as Elisabeth de Valois was consistently disappointing. The only real excitement for me in the whole performance was the heroic and fascinating Posa of David Stout, a total newcomer. Here was an astonishingly promising vocal performance: a potential top star in the making. He is still unformed in various ways, but absolutely on the right track – and much more secure than Neal Cooper’s squeezed and too assertive unlyrical Tannhäuser.

Of course I love the work so much that I was content to enjoy it, even in such an unfulfilling account in most areas. But the prices paid by the punters at these two summer operas are considerable – getting on for the level of Covent Garden and Glyndebourne – and that ought to ensure casting of real quality. It does not, it seems – and Wasfi Kani’s artistic choices at Grange Park are no longer as interesting or adventurous as they used to be. Before Don Carlo we had a repeat of a speech that she loves to make, expressing her endless enthusiasm for the extremely rich on whose gifts and donations her new Theatre in the Woods at West Horsley Place in Surrey will of course depend. Such ventures could not depend on widows’ mites. But now that some CEOs are paid 2000 times more than the least well-off of those they employ in their concerns, and that earnings of many millions are almost routine for some, it is time to question whether yet another little dose of culture for the exceedingly rich is a really worthwhile objective. If only Wasfi Kani had wanted to make opera in a big city with many cheap seats for the poor as well as enough for the rich, like Victorian theatre used to be, it would have meant something important.