Covent Garden’s Tannhäuser, without Tannhäuser: first review

Covent Garden’s Tannhäuser, without Tannhäuser: first review


norman lebrecht

January 30, 2023

One of this season’s Royal Opera flagship new productions was badly damaged on its first night by the inability of Stefan Vinke, cast as Tannhäuser, to sing. He walked the part whilst it was sung from the side by Austrian tenor Norbert Ernst. I don’t want to be too critical. Mr Ernst was clearly dragged in at the last minute, but it should be said he was not quite up to what is a very demanding role. The real question many people were asking is why didn’t they have an understudy for this major role? When Jonas Kaufmann went sick doing ‘Fidelio’, Michael Butt-Phillips did an excellent job as stand in and indeed appears on the video.

This was a great sadness, because this is a very good new production of Tannhäuser. It is directed by Tim Albery, designed minimally but tastefully by Michael Levine, with great choreography by Jasmin Vardimon and great dancing in the Venusberg scene. The orchestra were superb under Sebastian Weigle, and the chorus, including the children’s chorus, fabulous under chorus director William Spaulding.

All the other singers were excellent: Ekaterina Gubanova as Venus was sexy and dangerous, Mika Kares was imposing as Herman, Gerald Finley was outstanding as Wolfram, Olafur Sigurdarson was a good Biterolf, standing in for Michael Krause. Above all Lise Davidsen was superb as Elisabeth. She towered over the men in presence and in power. She is undoubtedly the Wagnerian soprano of her time. It is worth seeing this ‘Tannhäuser’ for her alone, in fact they could rename it Elisabeth for the rest of the run! Let’s hope that Stefan Vinke can sing the next one by Wednesday; if not a substitute brought in. Until then this first night will be remembered for ‘Tannhäuser’ without Tannhäuser!

Hugh Kerr, editor Edinburgh Music Review


  • Edward says:

    It does little for a reviewer’s credibility if they cannot get basic facts right. It is not a new production, this is its second revival and the tenor who substituted for Jonas Kaufmann was David Butt Philip. A cursory google search would have revealed this. Do they not bother with even a modicum of research?

    • TishaDoll says:

      If TANNHAUSER can’t sing the role, it doesn’t matter if the little ‘facts’ aren’t perfect.

      • Tiredofitall says:

        Silly comment, given the circumstances under which the tenor covered. Context (and “facts”) matters.

        Actually, reviewers should have waited until the first performance with the complete cast, given that this was a revival, not a new production.

  • Concertgebouw79 says:

    I hope that the public of CG knows the chance there’s to see a production, today, with Lise Davidsen.

  • Hugh Kerr editor Edinburgh Music Review says:

    Apologies Edward as you can tell it was a rushed review and relied on my memory of attending Covent Garden for 57 years instead of detailed checking however what do you think of my main point about not having an understudy?

    • Gareth Morrell says:

      Perhaps it has changed in the interim, but when I worked at ROH (1980s) the smaller roles sometimes had understudies, but the major roles almost never, and what understudies there were had musical coaching but no staging rehearsals. This would often lead to late curtains as a star was flown in from Europe. When Joan Sutherland cancelled a performance of Esclarmonde, the whole opera was replaced at very short notice by Madama Butterfly, using some of the Esclarmonde cast. Needless to say, this was not a very satisfactory system, and yet I venture to guess that the way we do it at the Met, with every role understudied and fully rehearsed, is not something that most places can afford.

    • Paul Dawson says:

      You may not have had this website in mind when you rushed out your review, but your publication subscribers deserve better. You are a disgrace to the art.

    • Robert John Worth says:

      It’s not detailed checking

      Plenty of the readers of your review will have seen this production at least once before this week and if you call it ‘new’ you cannot expect them to find it worth consideration

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    It’s difficult enough to find a convincing Tannhäuser as first cast, let alone have one on standby. Norbert Ernst is, actually, an excellent singer, though David, Walter and Lohengrin are more his thing.

  • Player says:

    He is not a proper reviewer, as has been pointed out many times before, so I’m not sure why Norman keeps featuring his wibblings here. He is an ex-MEP.

  • Alf says:

    Oh Hugh, fudging it again. At least you didn’t have to mention your time in EU politics again.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    I don’t think that it is fair to review a performance when there are obvious problems like this. Why not wait until he is back on again?

  • Hugh says:

    For clarity: David Butt Philip wasn’t an understudy. He was due to sing in later performances of Fidelio and was brought in early.

  • Judith says:

    The production, including a Wolfram looking like a 1950s agent of MI5 and a Tannhauser with his bow tie untied, undermines a crucial premise of the opera: that sensuality for its own sake is a sin leading to hell. Which, I suppose, Albery briefly illustrated with the repetitive “dance” distracting from the fabulous overture: it was annoying at the time, but for eternity? Hell, indeed.

    Lise Davidsen was truly brilliant.

  • Fritz Grantler says:

    Lise Davidsen ? I heard her at the MET as Eva – nothing special – she is just loud ….