Tannhäuser - Royal Opera House, 11 December 2010 (first night)
The Royal Opera House's publicity blurb describes Tannhäuser as "Wagner’s great battle of the sensual and the spiritual". But there's no sex and and barely any religion in Tim Albery's thoughtful but often perplexing new production. In their place is a drab tussle between grim and grimmer with a few class overtones tossed in. It's salvaged mainly by the inspired conducting of Semyon Bychkov and some splendid singing.
Tannhäuser has a tough choice to make. First there are the illicit charms of the Venusberg, where the sensory extravaganza of the opening orgy/ballet is reduced to prim spectacle. Androgynous dancers leap across an empty banqueting table in neatly-pressed underpants with all the erotic promise of a Marks and Spencer ad. Not even Ann Summers. Is this really as far as our hero's dirty mind can travel?
Then there's the Wartburg, somewhere deep in war-torn Operaland (not far from David Alden's Munich production), where headscarved women and Kalashnikov-toting thugs mope amongst the rubble. Tannhäuser's salvation lies of course in the truth and beauty personified by Elisabeth. Surrounded by filth and decay, Eva-Maria Westbroek was radiant in her chaste white lace dress.
The only other relief from the unrelenting drabness was the coup de théâtre of the Shepherd Boy's appearance beneath a tree that seems to rise from nowhere (in reality on a hydraulic platform). If there are prizes for lighting (I'm sure there must be) David Finn deserves one, and not just for this moment.
As if we hadn't seen enough of onstage theatres in David McVicar's Adriana Lecouvreur, the Royal Opera House itself unites Tannhäuser's two worlds too. First it's a pristine scale replica framing the dream-like Venusberg action, then the ruined Hall of Song.
Is Albery taking a pop at the extravagance of the folk in the £215 seats I wondered as dancer couples drifted beneath the false proscenium, dressed for a posh night out? Considering who pays him, I'd hope not. In any case, the opera has so much to say about the production of art it seems dangerous to burden its flawed dramaturgy with a commentary on consumption too. But perhaps I've misread the intention - much of Albery's concept was more puzzling than provocative.
The lack of movement proved a trial to watch. Perhaps it was a concession to the inhuman bulk of Johan Botha, who spent most of the evening seated. True, he sang loudly and clearly and didn't tire in his impossible role until the very end. But despite a greater effort to engage than I've ever seen him attempt, he remained a blank canvas vocally and physically.
The real vocal star of the evening was, as expected, Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram von Eschenbach (incidentally, can any Wagner expert tell me if there's a valid basis for Covent Garden's spelling, Eschinbach?) His light, velvety baritone took on an almost conversational quality, delicately shaded in its nobility, bursting out in the heartbreaking Evening Star. I'd wondered beforehand how his Wigmore-sized voice would cope, but he located the JDF spot beneath the proscenium and rang out loud and clear.
Eva-Maria Westbroek's voice has developed a mature, sensual richness that's perhaps not ideal for the virginal Elisabeth, and her final sacrifice passes for little in Albery's concept. Michaela Schuster has a different kind of sensuality, a sort of uncontrolled coarse quality that may not count as beautiful vocalism but made her a convincing Venus. Other parts were taken well, particularly Christof Fischesser's powerful Hermann. I do question the decision to cast a boy treble instead of a soprano as the Shepherd Boy - it's a big sing for such a little chap however magical the stage picture.
Semyon Bychkov proved a master of pacing, timing and dramatic inspiration, drawing the finest playing I've heard all season from the ROH orchestra, and a sense of orchestral discipline that is more usually found wanting. Last year's Lohengrin was great, but his Tannhäuser is greater still. Resisting any urge to step on the gas too early, he teased the three and half hours of music to a masterful, exhilarating climax. And that's what Tannhäuser is all about.
(huge thanks to Michael W for most of the curtain call photos)