Appealing though the idea is, it would not be feasible to have all the Wagner bicentenary events at the BBC Proms played by leading opera companies, like the stunning Ring from Daniel Barenboim and the Staatsoper Berlin. The cost would be prohibitive, so it is natural that the BBC should look to its own orchestras to share the burden.
This concert performance of Tannhäuser offered a neat compromise. As Donald Runnicles is both general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, he was in a position to bring over the chorus of his company from Berlin and pair it with his orchestra from Glasgow.
The result was a very viable Tannhäuser. Runnicles has given the BBC memorable concert performances of Wagner in the past and drew some effective playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – not sounding Wagnerian in every sinew as Barenboim’s Ring did (how could it when the Scottish orchestra probably sees Wagner once a year at most?), but diligent rehearsal made sure the players tapped into where the drama and expression are to be found.
Thanks to Runnicles, who is the most natural of Wagner conductors, everything worked. The chorus of the Deutsche Oper made a handsome impression, whether as pilgrims or sirens of sexual permissiveness luring those weak of will to the Venusberg, here located in the Royal Albert Hall gallery (a bonus for over-18s on cheap tickets).
Robert Dean Smith, who stepped in as Tristan a week earlier, made a Tannhäuser of medium weight and clean lines, though unusually for him, his voice tired as the evening wore on. The rest of the cast offered no big names, but was so well chosen it hardly mattered. Two singers – American soprano Heidi Melton as a warm, lyrical Elisabeth and Estonian bass Ain Anger as a firm Landgrave – were especially impressive, giving notice of Wagnerian voices to watch. Daniela Sindram was barely less captivating as a radiant Venus who gave her all and there was sturdy support from Christoph Pohl’s Wolfram and Thomas Blondelle’s Walther. With Runnicles sweeping all of them along on an irresistible Wagnerian tide, this Tannhäuser was not overshadowed.