Onwards and upwards

OPERA Tannhauser Opera North, Leeds
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While we Anglo-Saxons swung resolutely red last week, Thuringia - in Peter Mumford's graphic cycloramas for David Fielding's new Tannhauser at Opera North - plumped bashfully for blue. Perhaps those East Germans always had a soft centre.

Fielding both directed and designed, and not surprisingly fell between two stools - which is the point of the opera anyway, as Tannhauser (read the young Richard Wagner) teeters between Faustian doubts, winter and spring, and a sort of anticipatory Nietzschean dualism nibbled out of Schopenhauer and Hegel.

How Wagner wowed Parisian, let alone Dresden, audiences with this curious yet wonderful piece of elongated Schmerz is anyone's guess. He chopped between versions almost as regularly as his antihero's appetites pendulum from lust to asceticism, warbling to wanderlust.

Leeds served up Wagner's slightly tarted-up Dresden version; and even though the vexing stage incongruities that have visually jiggered several recent productions were not absent, Mumford's lighting, Fielding's direction (latterly), some more than sufficient principals and everything from the pit contrived to keep the show - unexpectedly - simple in outline and more or less on the road.

This Tannhauser's path seemed (aptly) upward. Wagner's first act is an odd melange of styles, part set-piece, part pseudo-linked. Anne Marie- Owens radiated vocally as a kind of deep Queen of the Night-cum-Montmartre Madame, emanating from a rouged broom cupboard.

Jeffrey Lawton's Heldentenor will either touch the marrow or give you the heeby-jeebies. His vibrato, a bit like a breaking voice yet oddly poignant, generates clusters of Lutoslawskian quartertones within which nestles, somewhere, a note; a diminished fifth yelp occasionally rounds off. Yet, by Act 2 (the exchange with Elisabeth and the exuberance that precede Tannhauser's fisticuffs with the Music Hall bouncers and his great Act 3 resignation) things markedly looked up.

By then we were free of unconvincing earthbound delights ("the IRA in pyjamas", someone observed, possibly with an eye to Glyndebourne's recent Theodora) and some mildly ineffectual gesture (though for kinky positions the tailors' dummies proved nonpareils) and into the clear blue water of Rita Cullis's saintly Elisabeth. And what a pleasure she was from start to final Assumption. Paul Daniel and the ENP really should get her musicianship and personality on to a Naxos disc of arias soon.

Much else helped: the woodwind was a joy; the ENP strings warmed up beautifully; the knightly male-voice sextets all impressed; Keith Latham's Wolfram sang an uncertainly pitched "Star of Night" (could it be catching? "Hey, folks, it's Wagner, fetch out the echt-wobble"), yet in this case the inarticulateness was genuinely moving; Norman Bailey's Landgrave, vocally rickety and bizarrely mailfisted, yet crucially authoritative and suitably uncle-ish. Fielding's principal chorus moves (on which Wagner had firm ideas) and group blockings felt, to my eye, particularly well- judged.

It was this traditional, old-fashioned underlay that kept the show on the road; and no measure of plastic tits and bums and bare light bulbs, or slightly dinky (but canny) wee shepherds actually derailed or obscured it. If Paul Daniel could just apply his magic fire to Wagner's bitter Act 1 seams, I'd say pop out and catch it. You're certainly promised an eyeful.

Tonight, Sat, 17, 24 May (0113-245 9351) Roderick Dunnett

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