(In the 1875 version)
By Richard Wagner
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
The conflict between love pure and profane is one which much occupied the considerable mind of Richard Wagner. His great music drama, Tannhäuser, in which he sets out the case for both with characteristic passion - and perhaps even certain objectivity - has returned to the Royal Opera stage after an absence of almost 25 years. And it has been well worth waiting for!
This new production, directed with style by Tim Albery, crystallizes the dilemma which so absorbed the composer that he wrote a verbose treatise on the issue in response to criticism of his latest powerful work.
"They recognise nothing but the fable of their own incompetence in the story of a man whom they are utterly unable to comprehend."
The conflicting distractions of the love of women and fine things with a concern for religion and morality is epitomised in the character of Heinrich Tannhäuser, splendidly sung here by the South African tenor Johan Botha.
He may not be the smartest mover around the stage but who cares when the voice that recently delighted Vienna and Turin in this role is now delighting us in London's own great operatic auditorium.
The opening scene is the Venusberg where the minstrel and his Venus - a fine performance from Bavarian mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster, if lacking something of the rich sensuality I would expect from this queen of the hedonistic arts - are enjoying a most impassioned and increasingly frenzied bacchanalia, the verisimilitude of Hellenistic joie de vivre. This is danced with great energy and athleticism by nymphs and sirens, all brilliantly choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon in a spectacular Covent Garden debut. No surprise that her commissions have included Hellenic Dance in Athens. I was breathless simply watching until Botha captivated us with his "Hymn to Venus".
The dramatic power of Schuster's mezzo comes into its own as she scolds him when he tells her of his desire to return to the outside world and foretells his need to come back to her. At his cry to "Maria" we are suddenly in the valley of the Wartburg where a young shepherd, here sung by the Croydon schoolboy Alexander Lee, sings a pastoral strain.
While some may argue for a soprano in this role I find the authenticity of the piping treble adds a touch of medieval magic, my only reservation being that the boy should be more rustically attired.
Here, the excellent chorus, splendidly marshalled by Renatto Balsadonna, give forth an eloquent psalm of devotion. As Herrmann, an excellent performance by the German bass Christof Fischesser, and the hunters enter to grip the entire house with a beautiful septet.
The Act 2 setting for the medieval song contest (Eisteddfod) which Wagner will visit again in Die Meistersinger, is The Wartburg where Elisabeth, in the person of Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, welcomes him and they join in the sparkling duet "With joy I greet thee".
A feature in both sound and vision of the grand march signalling the contest is the banked array of trumpets raised stage right, in the balcony boxes. And the act climaxes with a fine performance of the septet, "An angel has from heaven descended".
Following Elizabeth's moving death song "Hear my sorrow", there comes what for me is the gem of the entire opera, Wolfram's tender "Song to the evening star" a memorable performance in this production by the German baritone Christian Gerhaher. It may be "gefärlich" - as Wagner himself might have put it - to raise the name and fame of Fischer-Dieskau in this context but the records show he sang this role at Bayreuth in 1962.
It must be recorded that both chorus and orchestra are in excellent form under the clear and authoritative guidance of Semyon Bychkov. And while it might seem faint praise to say that Michael Levine's settings are hardly eye-catching, a tortured replica of the Garden's own proscenium arch and a suggestion of Bosnia or anywhere in the Balkans, at least they are not distracting, something that cannot be said of even the great Wieland Wagner!
This production can be seen at Covent Garden on Thursday 30 December at 6.30 pm and on Sunday 2nd January at 3.00 pm.
Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole