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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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For the second new Royal Opera production in a row, the curtain opens on a theatre within a theatre.  For Adrianna Lecouvreur it was a baroque stage with all its ornate machinery but Tannhäuser brings us bang up to date with a perfect reproduction of the red velvet tabs and golden proscenium of the Royal Opera House itself.  

For Tim Albery’s new production, the first appearance of Wagner’s early opera at Covent Garden in 23 years, Venusberg is some kind of theatrical fantasy, with the goddess (Michaela Schuster) a diva seducing her man with music rather than sex, while Jasmin Vardimon’s choreography explodes with an abstract energy.  

Albery seems to be trying to subvert the basic message of the piece – that love should be chaste and pure with an idealised woman in white rather than of the lustful kind – but it's like trying to present The Merchant of Venice as though it’s not essentially anti-semitic or The Taming of the Shrew as not misogynistic.  It doesn't quite work.  

While the conflict between the physical and spiritual has featured in much art (an obsession, for instance, for the German writer Hermann Hesse), it looks too much like sanctimonious tosh here, maybe part of the reason that Tannhäuser is difficult to revive in the early 21st Century.

If Albery and designer Michael Levine don’t quite succeed in undercutting the cant with their assault on Wagner’s stage directions, they give us increasingly interesting visuals.  Act 2 is a war-zone, the golden proscenium now buckled and splintered, and the Landgrave (Christof Fischesser) a Chechen-type partisan leader.  The emphasis is on Kalashnikovs rather than harps. Act 3 is a scene of desolation with only wisps of the golden ornamentation remaining, an arid setting for Tannhäuser’s redemption to take place.

Whether or not you find the drama a bitter pill, there is a good deal to enjoy musically.  Semyon Bychkov proved with Lohengrin a couple of years ago that he can be a fine Wagnerian and he delivers again a full-blooded account of the tuneful score, with some great playing from the ROH Orchestra.

Johan Botha (also the Lohengrin of that last revival) is a true heldentenor, powerful and ringing, and he is more animated here than we’ve seen him in the house before.  The angelic Elisabeth is a sweet and strong Eva-Maria Westbroek (soon to make a journey of extremes herself when she returns as Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole in the New Year).

Christian Gerhaher is a world-renowned recitalist and lieder-singer and it really shows in this, his London stage debut, as a hang-dog Wolfram von Eschenbach.  It’s the outstanding performance of the evening.

This is an opera and a production that will draw mixed responses for all sorts of reasons but it’s as strong an offering from the Royal Opera as we’ve seen during 2010 and a fine way to end the year.

- Simon Thomas                  


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