After a two-year Covid-induced hiatus, Saffron Opera was back to their Wagner project with this fine concert performance of Tannhäuser. The cast of professional singers and a professionally stiffened amateur orchestra was conducted by Michael Thorne, who has been guiding the company through the Wagner canon since they launched in 2014 with Die Meistersinger. There have been many moments over the years when Saffron Opera has hit the Wagner bull’s eye, and it has been very rewarding to hear how Michael Thorne’s obvious love for the works has become more relaxed and instinctive. Without any directorial input, this worked very much to the advantage of Wagner’s early – and troublesome – grand opera, and the simple sex-versus-religion drama flowed easily, drawing attention away from any longueurs.
In the absence of a staging and with the cast staying close to their music stands, the work’s romance still came across strongly, led by Neal Cooper (nephew of the boxer Sir Henry Cooper) and Samantha Crawford. Cooper’s take on role was maverick and roughly sensual – it was no wonder that Venus was so distraught by his desire to flee her Venusberg love-nest. He was a memorable Tannhäuser for Longborough in 2016 (and readers might remember that he also stepped up from Melot to Tristan during the course of the Glyndebourne Prom in 2017 to cover for Simon O’Neill), and if his voice loses any sweetness under pressure, its size and tortured machismo suited his dynamic portrayal of the errant Minnesinger very convincingly. He was straining by the end of Act 2 – in context it increased the tension and sense of danger – but was on form for a searing account of Tannhäuser’s Act 3 narration. As Elisabeth, Samantha Crawford was also inspired casting. She has the blonde, virginal presence and unconstricted soprano radiance perfect for this and other Wagner roles, the silvery gleam in her voice produced a trumpet-like ‘Dich, teure Halle’, and then she sang a beautifully remote prayer to the Jungfrau, Wagner’s paraphrase of the Salve Regina. She engaged with the role, and it was thrilling.
As was her nemesis Venus, as sung by Elaine McKrill with imperious clarity in Act 1, then succumbing to magnificent hell-fire spite and brimstone in her Act 3 defeat. Arthur Bruce’s expressive, warm baritone told us everything we needed to know about Wolfram’s unresolved conflict of interests between Elisabeth and Tannhäuser, his Act 2 contest song showed off the full bloom of his voice, then ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’ cast its melancholy magic over Act 3. There was a stalwart line-up of worthy Minnesingers led by Andrew Greenan’s excellent Landgraff, supported and well-characterised by Paul Carey Jones (Biterolf), Brian Smith Walters (Walther), Ben Thapa (Heinrich) and Simon Grange (Reinmar). Joshua Davidson briefly stole the show as the Young Shepherd, with the hall flattering his tender, vulnerable treble. The chorus, I think the largest that Saffron Opera has fielded, made a stirring sound, and overall there wasn’t a weak link in the singing. There was the odd bit of uneven playing from the orchestra, but you couldn’t fault them for attack and immediacy. I wonder what’s next for Saffron Opera – Flying Dutchman or Lohengrin?