Just over five years ago, Tim Albery’s then new production of Tannhäuser came in for some criticism, not least for its dowdy setting and near-obligatory Kalashnikov-wielding opera thugs. But it was a taut and, at times insightful exploration of Wagner’s sexual-religious fantasy which attempted, at least, to subvert the cloying morality of a story that is not so easy to stomach in this day and age.
Who these days would choose the pure, non-physical love of an idealized woman over the fleshly temptations of a goddess offering everything? It goes against the zeitgeist of easy and instant gratification and can so easily look like a sanctimonious moralizing that belongs in the distant past.
In 2010, the performance that wowed audiences was Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram, whose electrifying ‘Abendstern’ aria was an undoubted highlight of that year. He returns for this revival and is every bit as good. In this song contest Gerhaher wins hands down, his every appearance delivered with consummate artistry. He displays all the skills of a great lieder singer and yet fills the house with a focus (and heft when needed) that is laser-sharp.
Peter Seiffert, on the other hand, although a once eminent Wagnerian, is sadly past his best as the conflicted poet Tannhäuser. Ragged from the beginning, there were doubts that he’d make it through the evening and he very nearly didn’t. It leaves a gaping hole at the centre of the production and makes one yearn for the bright tones of Johan Botha who, at the very least, delivers vocal security.
Emma Bell’s Elisabeth lies somewhere between the extremes of Gerhaher and Seiffert. Not the sweetest of pure virgins, she tends to belt in the earlier scenes but is most affecting in the last act, with a focused and controlled ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’.
Sophie Koch as the goddess Venus is another disappointment. She’s visually convincing but far from voluptuous of voice, with some wayward intonation, and she and Seiffert make the first hour tough going. In this mix of vocal accomplishment, the plus side is boosted by a sterling Landgrave from Stephen Milling and brightly pitched Walther von der Voglweide by Ed Lyon.
Hartmut Haenchen conducts a workmanlike performance for much of the evening but rises to much greater heights in the final act; the accompaniment to Gerhaher’s ‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’ is wonderfully sensitive and moving, and leads into a resounding and memorable finale. The Royal Opera Chorus is on fine form all evening.
Albery’s production will continue to mystify some. What he’s getting at with his (and designer Michael Levine’s) imagery of sex and art, and a spiritual world of gradual decay, isn’t crystal clear but it somehow works and makes for a satisfying whole. Jasmin Vardimon’s abstract and far from literal choreography gets the evening off to an exciting start and, vocal shortcomings apart, this is a revival that uplifts and thrills in the way that only Wagner can.