Tannhäuser, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, April 2016Posted on 27 April 2016
This first revival of Tim Albery’s 2010 production was very welcome, with a cast in some ways stronger than that of five seasons ago.
The most prominent feature of the production is the on-stage version of the main proscenium arch complete with Royal Opera House curtains, representing the entrance to the Venusberg. Its later decayed and dismembered versions lying around on stage are a nice metaphor for Tannhäuser’s attempts to throw off sexual delights in favour of a deeper satisfaction that seems to elude him, as the on-stage arch and curtain reappears at various moments. His journey with the pilgrims to Rome is his final, apparently failed, attempt to rid himself of his obsessions and return to his beloved Elisabeth, but redemption demands a miracle, confirmed by the treble chorus at the end as death takes them both. The performance uses essentially the ‘Paris version’ in its updated form for Vienna in 1875, though at the end of his life Wagner still felt he owed the world a new Tannhäuser.
The Venusberg bacchanal in Albery’s production is strongly physical, with ‘black tie’ dancers in quasi-formal attire well suiting the alluring elegance of Sophie Koch as a powerful Venus with a rich tone, if weak diction. Her counterpoint as the pure Elisabeth, fascinated by Tannhäuser’s entrancing melodies of passionate love, was beautifully and movingly sung by Emma Bell, and as the man himself Peter Seiffert produced a heroic lyricism in this extraordinarily demanding role that began to take its toll in Act III. Stephen Milling as Landgraf Hermann exuded gravitas throughout, singing with a fine, even tone, and in the Act II song contest Michael Kraus as Biterolf sang with excellent diction and beautiful phrasing.
While this was a different cast of principals from 2010 the one constant was Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram von Eschenbach. This outstanding Lieder singer, a student of philosophy and trained physician, has made the role his own, singing it in numerous opera houses, and from his first greeting to Tannhäuser in Act I to his final words in Act III, the effect was spellbinding. Five seasons ago it was his early Act III Song to the Evening Star that appealed most strongly, but this is now enhanced by his finely nuanced interactions with the rest of the cast. Simply wonderful!
Apart from a Pilgrims’ Chorus that never quite achieved the impact it can sometimes have, Hartmut Haenchen’s wonderful conducting gave ample space to the unfolding drama, yet the opera finished a full 20 minutes earlier than expected, and even the excellent orchestra remained behind for the extensive curtain calls!
Performances continue on various dates until May 15 — for details click here.