Covent Garden’s new show hits first night calamity

Covent Garden’s new show hits first night calamity


norman lebrecht

January 29, 2023

From our man in the stalls:

First night of Tannhauser began disastrously with the news that Stephan Vinke the Tannhauser can’t sing and it was sung thinly from the side by Norbert Ernst while Vinke walked it though, The good news it was a lovely balletic orgy and Lise Davidsen was superb!

UPDATE: The good news is that the Tannhauser stand in was drowned out by Lise Davidsen the chorus and anyone else singing and the last line in the second act is “ on to Rome” and as someone said “ let’s hope he doesn’t come back”! It does beg the question does Covent Garden have no substitute for this major role?!

Due to illness, Stefan Vinke had to withdraw from singing the role of Tannhäuser a few hours before the opening performance. The role was walked by Stefan Vinke and sung by Norbert Ernst from the side of stage. Ernst last performed for the Royal Opera in the 2015 production of Ariadne auf Naxos.


  • Gary says:

    Someone who steps in unprepared at the last moment is a hero and doesn’t deserve the the snide comment in the story.

    • Hugh Kerr says:

      You weren’t there and the question for Covent Garden is why was there no understudy?!

    • Nemorino's Uncle says:

      Especially whilst the performance is still going…this “article” was appallingly posted during the performance. I thought he sang well.

    • Tiredofitall says:

      Totally agree. But, then, opera queens aren’t exactly known for their generosity of spirit.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      That’s certainly true. The snideness should be reserved for the Royal Opera, who apparently didn’t think to have a prepared replacement on notice.

    • caranome says:

      True, but where’s the understudy who can sing AND walk the stage? Some stars were made during these last-minute stand-ins. Hope this is not cost cutting move.

      • EagleArts says:

        As far as I know, generally if the singer doesn’t go onstage and at least walk the role they are not paid. Could also be a question of the cover not knowing the staging.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Exactly. If he was singing from the side, how could he not sound “thinly”?

    • Alan says:

      Hear, hear.

      Snide is exactly what a of of what passes for comment on this blog is. Well done to the stand in. An impossible position to be put in.

    • TruthHurts says:

      Imagine: after all these years, European opera houses still have not realized that it is possible to do the intelligent thing by actually hiring and paying covers. Their unwillingness to do so is a monument to their own stupidity. Major US houses all cover all roles, granted not always successfully, but at least they try.

  • Madeleine Richardson says:

    I just got back from the La Monnaie’s première of Onegin and it was brilliant. Sally Matthews was a tour de force as the heroine and Bogdan Volkov brought down the house as Lensky.

    • Tristan says:

      this has nothing to do with the topic here – happy they got it right for once as they had the most appaling Tosca there and its manager is another useless one

    • Micaela Bonetti says:

      Oohhhh, how lucky you!
      Wish I’d been attending.
      Adore “Onegin” and Lensky’s aria invariably makes me cry…

  • Larry says:

    How is it that they had no understudy for this, the title role? The Met has a policy that all understudies must be within 15 minutes of the house. If it’s a broadcast performance, they must be in the house.

  • Jane says:

    My sister was sitting in the Amphitheatre and could hear every word he sang.

  • James Cook says:

    I attended; It was disappointing that the lead tenor was only acting but it was preferable to no performance

  • Margaret Koscielny says:

    It’s so difficult to be a singer. You are so exposed, and there are so many mean, unforgiving people in the audience. It takes great courage and self-confidence to perform any instrument, but, especially, when ones voice is the instrument.

  • poyu says:

    Quite uncharitable comment to say the least. Tannhauser is arguably the most vocally difficult Wagner tenor role. I heard the same production with great Peter Seiffert (in his late stage of career) and he fell at those four killer high notes in act II. Not that many tenor would comfortably sign in for this role.

    Anyway, I was there, and it was a great evening. One would wish Tannhauser to be stronger but it was far far from a disaster.

    • Tristan says:

      you are so right and those evenings happen all over even in Salzburg for Boheme (with prices up to 400!!) when Beczala only acted on stage and Jonas Kaufmann sang from the side, it happened in Vienna for a real opening night of a new production of Walkuere (Wotan Pederson lost his voice and they found a singer at a station in Vienna so audience had to wait for Oskar Hildebrand who replaced on the side….) and happened here before when Heppner fell ill as Tristan and Lars Cleveman sang from the side – voila
      It’s very bad luck and as someone rightly said it’s one of the most challenging roles ever and hardly any tenor can tackle it – still the young Austrian did his job, sounded like a Wiener Saengerknabe at times and was warmly received as the rest of he evening was on a high level in this rather dull production (except the fabulous ballet at the beginning there wasn’t anything great going on but at least it didn’t hurt like some previous in Bayreuth or on most German stages….)
      Lise Davidsen simply stole the show and when did we ever hear such healthy superb sound of a rea Wagnerian voice? I can only think of Nina Stemme as most others sang over their repertoire – let’s just hope she wont be ruined by egoistic conductors for roles too early to sing or useless directors or managers who mostly do not know a note of music….
      Last night was after all mostly brilliant music making with some fantastic singing – isn’t it a lot these days…?

  • James Cook says:

    I attended and yes, the opening bacchanal was great.

  • Ernest says:

    Kudos to Herr Ernst but it still calls into question why a major house does not have some one prepped and ready to go on at short notice … should we blame Brexit again?

    • Player says:

      Don’t get Hugh Kerr started on this!

      His replacement was an Austrian, drafted in at a few hours’ notice, so I’m not sure what Brexit could have to do with it.

  • Pedro says:

    I was there. I agree with Gary. Davidsen was indeed superb but there was another hero in the cast: the beautyful Wolfram of George Finley. The conducting of Sebastian Weigle was kapellmeisterich at the highest level and he was duly applauded by the orchestra at the end. Gubanova’s voice was sometime out of control which was a pity for such a great artist. The dancers were absolutely remarkable in an otherwise awful production. I will be back in June for Davidsen other Elizabeth (de Valois). In a few years she will be the the Isolde, the Elektra, the Brünnhilde and the Turandot of the first third of the century.

  • Maria says:

    About time they had proper understudiesat ROH, as they used to, and rehearse them properly so if someone steps in, they can do the production. Amazing how the older generation could do that even on no production, fly in and give a convincing performance than this from the wings or pit business.

    • AndrewB says:

      Some years ago they could have cast practically any opera from within the house. They had a team of singers on permanent contract who steadily honed their skills through a series of roles and became fine singers indeed. The great stars still came , but there was usually someone prepared and on hand to go on stage if a singer was sick.

    • C_Porumbescu says:

      “Convincing” is a very relative term. Opera productions these days tend to be a little more sophisticated than “walk on stage, stand on stage, wave arms a bit, sing”.

  • Player says:

    I had to leave the dress rehearsal, Vinke was so effortfully bad.

  • Brian says:

    What an appalling article. Rather than cancel the performance, a singer agrees to save the show under circumstances that aren’t good for him either, and a major blog snipes at him. I am really disgusted.

  • Gary Freer says:

    Davidsen and Gerald Finley were marvellous – the stand in was ok. Orchestra good, Chorus immense.
    Shame about the dull production.

  • LeganzaLegs says:

    If we’re going with uncharitable, snide comments, then surely whatever happened it must’ve been an improvement on Vinke?