Irene Richards – Wagner News

There can be very few Comprehensive schools in the country that are blessed with a space like Saffron Hall.   Saffron County High School is one such.  The 740 seat Saffron Hall, together with the existing Saffron Screen, provides a multi-arts complex which well serves the school , Saffron Walden and the wider community. The Hall was purpose built to allow it to be used by the school for educational purposes and by local groups.  Its exceptional acoustic qualities make it ideal for music and its flexibility allows for full productions with a proper orchestra pit: revealed when part of the floor is removed!  Its resident Orchestras are the Britten Sinfonia and the London Philharmonic.

It was funded by the Yellow Car Charitable Trust to the tune of £10 million and was opened by Penelope Keith CBE, DL on the 13TH November 2013.

After the death of HM The Queen, the Saffron Hall Management had made the decision to go ahead with the performance of “Tannhauser” on Sunday, September 11.  Talking to others in the audience we all agreed that this would have been her wish.

Before the performance we stood for two minutes silence and for “God Save the King!” played by muted strings only.  It was most moving and completely in mood with the moment.

There will be debate about Concert Performances, just as there is about cinema streaming.  Usually, because “they are not THE PERFORMANCE”, only an approximation.  This cannot be denied.   However, with production costs soaring and seat prices with them, a lot of the time it’s the only way for millions of people to be able to afford to go.    And in the Pandemic it made music going possible.  It has to be argued that the experience is different but equally valid because the “music is the thing!”

However, concert performances of operatic works start out with an immediate disadvantage for both singers and audience.  There is no scenic context to give clues to where and what and who.  “Tannhauser”, having eluded me to date, placed me in this position.  The singing from soloists and chorus and the orchestral playing must have an energy that overcomes this: to make us “see” what the music is telling us.

As I have confessed, this was my first experience of “Tannhauser”.  So, how to approach a critical view?   I have no benchmark against which I can measure my appreciation of this performance except a long experience of listening to music.  I have to take it “as heard”.   After the final notes sounded I can say, without equivocation, that I had experienced a most enjoyable afternoon and early evening of music.

What, in particular, did I find satisfying about this performance?

I was already assured that The Saffron Opera Group Orchestra would give a good account of itself having heard it play at a concert performance of “Tristan and Isolde” in 2019.  Conducted by Michael Thorne it did not disappoint and provided an excellent soundstage for the performers.

The Chorus had been well trained by its chorus master James Davey and played its part very well.

Act I: We were given a sample of things to come in the opening highly emotional and passionate exchanges between Tannhauser  (Neal Cooper) and Venus (Elaine McKrill).  The scene near the Wartburg with the pilgrims passing on their way to Rome and Tannhauser’s reaction to their singing was moving.  This idyllic scene is further heightened by the treble voice of a Shepherd (Joshua Davidson) floating down from high up in the Hall.  It was a magical moment.

As was Wolfram’s reminder to Tannhauser that it was his singing that had won him the love of Elisabeth.  Wolfram, sung by Arthur Bruce (standing in for an indisposed Richard Burkhard) was one of the highlights of the evening.  You can only admire his pure, steady tone and superb diction.  His appeal builds up into a fine ensemble which moves Tannhauser to cry  “Lead me to her!”.

The act is brought to a joyous close as all join in and the orchestra lets loose its considerable power.

Act II:  After the tone-picture overture of a happy Elisabeth, the Orchestra sets off at a fast and thrilling pace leading up to one of the best known arias in the opera “Dich, teure Halle“, sung affectingly by Elisabeth (Samantha Crawford).

I was struck by the chemistry between Elisabeth and Tannhauser.  They made eye contact which showed the love between them.  It gave an extra dimension to the action and greater poignancy when Tannhauser sings his prize song full of worldly pleasures which so horrifies the assembled people.

The Act culminates in further turmoil as Tannhauser at the end rushes off to Rome seeking salvation.

Act III:   The Overture to this Act is probably the one best known and is a tone -painting of Tannhauser’s pilgrimage.

Wolfram brings an extra pathos to the scene of Elisabeth praying and hopes that Tannhauser will be among the pilgrims.  The chorus sang particularly well at this stage.  And in the knowledge that he has not returned Elisabeth sings, simply, “Er kehret nicht zuruch!” (He will return no more!)  This was sung with great poignancy by Samantha Crawford.

Wolfram sings “O du, mein holder Abendstern” (Oh star of eve, so pure, so fair).  This was really fine singing!  It was followed by the equally fine singing of Neal Cooper of Tannhauser’s  story of his failed pilgrimage and desire to return to Venusberg.  Venus and Wolfram each try to persuade Tannhauser not to give way.  Wolfram cries” Elisabeth!”  and from far off comes the singing of the chorus that Elisabeth is dead  and that Heinrich (Tannhauser)is redeemed – and also dies.

The chorus came into its  own as it united with Orchestra in a splendid restatement of the pilgrims’ song from the beginning of the opera.  And so, my first “Tannhauser”  concluded.

It was received with great applause by an appreciative audience.

Irene Richards