After last week's storming Barenboim Ring, it was something of a shock to be cast back to Wagner's early days with Tannhäuser, although Donald Runnicles' often refined reading gave strong hints of the creativity that was to come.
The young composer's handling of mood and texture is astonishing, the loud, racy opening, giving way to the audacious silences of the Shepherd's song and tranquility of the unaccompanied Pilgrim's chorus. Trying to listen to this score with fresh ears, and putting aside what we heard last week, one is in no doubt that this was the work of a genius and great things lay ahead.
Of course, Tannhäuser is a pick ‘n' mix work, with the Dresden, Paris and Vienna scores to choose from (this performance was largely the 1875 Vienna version, with elements of Dresden including Walther von der Vogelweide‘s contest song), so a work that Wagner constantly revised, and was never fully content with, is bound to show the influence of later developments. It would be disingenuous to retrospectively predict the composer's maturity from this opera, as we hear it today.
Wagner's plot doesn't get any easier to take, maybe one good reason for the work's neglect in the 21st century (this was the first ever complete performance at the Proms). There's no contest between carnal desire and chaste prayer mongering and the sanctimonious response to the hero's expression of basic human needs looks like so much religious cant.
There was a lack of sensuality in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's playing of the overture and bacchanale, reinforced by placing the women's chorus in the gallery, which gave them an ethereal rather than earthly feel. Ironically, Hila Fahima's voluptuously sung shepherd boy, looking a vision in red, evoked the carnality that was visually lacking in the preceding orgy. Even Daniela Sindram's steely Venus, although powerful and insinuating, looked drab in comparison.
Putting the brass-heavy offstage bands around the auditorium gave some wonderfully immersive moments but these were sometimes followed by longeurs. The rousing Act 2 Entry of the Guests, trumpets blaring from behind the choir, led into a saggy section halfway through the evening.
But when it was good, it was very good and there was a fine line-up of singers, with several of the principals making their BBC Proms debuts. Heidi Melton was a vocally pure and dramatically expressive Elisabeth and Estonian bass Ain Anger's charismatic Landgrave stood out. Memories of Christian Gerhaher in the Royal Opera's 2010 staging linger long, but Christoph Pohl was an excellent Wolfram, not least in his highlight moment with the "Abendstern" aria. Having stood in as Tristan last week, a lyrical Robert Dean Smith took the lesser demands of Tannhäuser in his stride and stayed the course.
One of the glories of the evening was the singing of the Concert Association of the Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, who switched between nymphs, knights and pilgrims with complete conviction and unwavering concentration.