Tannhäuser, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, December 2010

When the Paris Opera invited Wagner to produce a new version of Tannhäuser they asked him to insert the customary ballet in Act II, but he refused. Instead he expanded the Venusberg music to include a ballet in Act I, and the result was pandemonium. The aristocrats of the Jockey Club, accustomed to leaving their dining tables after the interval to view their favourite dancers, disrupted the production with cat-calls and dog whistles until Wagner was permitted to withdraw it after three performances.

Tannhäuser in the Venusberg, all photos by Clive Barda

What the choreography in Paris was like, I don’t know, but here in Tim Albery’s new production the choreography by Jasmin Vardimon worked well. It involved a long table with smartly dressed young men and women displaying enormous physical energy, and partially stripping off one another’s clothes towards the end of the scene. When the first part of Act I is over and Tannhäuser has abandoned his beloved Venus, the curtain closes across a proscenium arch on stage — this is a second proscenium arch, identical to the one at the front of Royal Opera House auditorium. It reappears in Act II, lying on the ground in a broken form, with the curtain a mere reddish rag on the floor. I wondered what the point was — is this to be the setting for the song contest at the Wartburg? Only when it reappeared in Act III, utterly broken into pieces of driftwood, did I see this as a metaphor for the Venusberg in Tannhäuser’s unconscious mind.

Elisabeth and the broken proscenium arch in Act II

Before Tannhäuser reappears from his pilgrimage to Rome in Act III, his old friend Wolfram stands on a piece of this driftwood bridging a chasm on stage, and after seeing a portent of death he launches into O du mein holder Abendstern (O you my precious evening-star). The evening star is of course the planet Venus, but how different is this celestial Venus to Tannhäuser’s Venus of earthly rapture. As different of course as the chaste Elisabeth to the lascivious Venus, well sung here by two different performers, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Michaela Schuster. Wolfram’s unassuming love for Elisabeth was convincingly portrayed by Christian Gerhaher, a remarkable baritone who has studied philosophy and is a qualified physician. He sang as if this were a lieder recital, filling the auditorium with beautiful sound. Tannhäuser himself was boldly and strongly sung by Johan Botha, whose ample frame suits the role of one who has taken his fill of earthly delights. Yet in Act I he sings that despite wandering in far distant lands, he never found rest nor peace (ich nimmer Rast noch Ruhe fand), and it came over with real feeling. This is the story of a man who succumbs to worldly delights yet cannot sate his desire for a deeper satisfaction, and cannot seem to redeem himself. His journey to Rome is a metaphor for his attempt to do so, but it only succeeds when Elisabeth is dead and he finally gives up the effort, resigning himself to his apparent fate.

Wolfram and the dying Elisabeth

Wagner used Christianity as the backdrop for this drama, and the miracle of the Pope’s staff yielding new shoots is a metaphor for the miracle of redemption. Other tales of this nature use other methods of redeeming the lost soul — Wagner’s story is not essentially Christian. Tannhäuser is simply a great opera, and Semyon Bychkov conducted brilliantly, with the musicians playing superbly and the brass going off-stage at one point to play horns from a balcony on the side. Musically it was terrific, and even though I thought the broken proscenium arch of Act II detracted rather than added to an understanding of the song contest, I felt by the end that it had its place in the overall scheme. When I commented on Act II to a friend in the second interval he wittily riposted, “I always think Act II is a good time for dinner”. This wonderful bon motnotwithstanding, here was five hours of excellence, not to be missed.

Performances continue until January 2nd — for more details click here.

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