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First Night Revisited: Tannhäuser on 21 November 1955

The first post-war production of Wagner's opera at Covent Garden had a chilly reception from the press, but provided opportunities for some remarkable emerging talent.

By Julia Creed (Head of Collections)

9 October 2015 at 3.00pm | 1 Comment

Like many of Richard Wagner’s operas, it took some years for Tannhäuser to reappear at the Royal Opera House with the first new production by the Covent Garden Opera Company having its premiere on 21 November 1955. Produced by Sumner Austin, it sparked mixed reactions in the nation’s press. The Fulham Chronicle opened its review with: ‘Nobody seems to have enjoyed the new Covent Garden production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser very much. Abuse has been hurled at the administration for practically everything about it’. By contrast the Daily Mail’s headline read: ‘An Experiment and a Triumph.’

In truth, the music, conducted by Rudolf Kempe, was roundly applauded by the critics. The Scotsman said ‘the sounds which emerged from the orchestral pit were truly luxurious’ and the Time and Tide critic wrote that Rudolf Kempe’s ‘tactful yet masterly management and rhythmic vitality cannot be too highly praised’. The critics were less enthusiastic about the singing, but felt that the opera was well cast. According to the Financial Times, Sylvia Fisher sang the role of Elisabeth ‘with purity and beauty of tone’, while the Times reviewer felt that Maria von Ilosvay performed Venus with ‘seductive tones in her voice’. The opera was sung in English using a translation by Ernest Newman, which proved a challenge for the German tenor Wilhelm Ernest, according to the Daily Mail critic.

The strongest reactions were reserved for the set and costume designs, a contemporary and bold scheme by Ralph Koltai. Time and Tide was particularly scathing, writing that the set looked like ‘an autobahn flanked by blasted conifers’ and that Venus was ‘got up like a tiddly art student at a wine party’. Koltai, now considered to be one of the world’s leading theatre designers, was only 31 when he took on this commission. Other articles indicate that he drew inspiration for the design from the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials that he had attended as an interpreter. In an interview with the News Chronicle in 1955 Koltai defended his design saying that in design ‘you must reflect the spirit of the age’ and ‘I am not out to shock people; I have designed Tannhäuser with complete sincerity, as I see it, hear it, feel it’.

The task of choreographing the Venusberg ballet at the start of the opera was entrusted to a young Kenneth MacMillan; it was his first ever commission for the Royal Opera House. This also caused controversy due to the perceived erotic nature of the dance; the Daily Sketch went as far as to ask ‘Has the Lord Chamberlain seen it?’. Dance and Dancers, however, noted that MacMillan had done ‘nothing to detract from his growing reputation’. The piece was performed by Julia Farron and Gilbert Vernon with a corps de ballet of 12 from the Covent Garden Opera Ballet.

The production was short-lived. After the Covent Garden Opera Company’s 1956 UK tour it was not seen again. However, it did provide a platform for emerging performing and creative talents.

This article was originally published in the Royal Opera House Magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden.

Tim Albery's production of Tannhäuser runs 26 April—15 May 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Simon and Virginia Robertson, Peter and Fiona Espenhahn, Malcolm Herring, the Tannhäuser Production Syndicate and the Wagner Circle.


This article has 1 comment

  1. Alter Jakob responded on 6 March 2016 at 2:18pm Reply

    I saw the 1956 tour production in Manchester, conducted by Reginald Goodall. I can't remember the cast at all, but Goodall"s conducting made it still probably the best live Wagner performance I have ever heard. And the decor didn't bother me at all. I can still hear the shepherd boy in Act I after 60 years. What was going on in London in the mid-50s?

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