The Royal Opera House itself is the star of this new production of Richard Wagner Tannhäuser. An intriguing twist on an opera that pits orgiastic excess against purity, pleasure against morality. Perhaps Tim Albery's inspiration came from the prize-singing contest. Dominating the stage in the First Act is a fake Royal Opera House proscenium, complete with fake velvet curtains and gold trimmings. It's absolutely stunning. But beware! The fact remains, Tannhäuser is not Adriana Lecouvreur.
For Wagner, Tannhäuser is torn between extremes. Venusberg represents orgiastic excess and abandonment, Wartburg ascetic self denial. Wartburg wins. Venusberg doesn't. If Albery thinks Tannhäuser is a metaphor for opera and for the Royal Opera House in particular, maybe he should get out more and see the real world. Prize song contests aren't just about "singing", as we know from Die Meistersinger. Moreover, Tannhäuser is even closer to medieval morality tale, though the theology is skewed.
For Wagner (who personally liked velvet and excess) what is at issue is a new sensibility built on rigorous concepts. Wagner's deliberately distancing himself from Meyerbeer and what he thought of as feelgood, but brainless, glitz. Hence the ballet that portrays Venusberg. It's a pointed dig against the kind of entertainment Wagner rejected, and at the kind of audiences who used to flock to see ballerinas' legs, ignoring the music and drama. Here it's presented completely devoid of irony. Once I saw a production where the ballet was a bondage orgy, the dancers inhuman beasts. Horrifying yet hypnotic, which is why our hero Tannhäuser was enslaved. If Venusberg was as safe and wholesome as this ballet, he would have long since died of boredom.
Albery's Wartburg is a post-apocalyptic greyness. The Royal Opera House arch lies broken, twisted like rubble in the background. Visually, though this adds a vertical element to the horizontal flatness. The barrenness is valid, since Wartburg's in a crisis situation. If Venusberg's no fun, Wartburg should be even less so. Physical movement in the First Act is slow to the point of being comatose. At first I thought this was to allow for Johann Botha's disability, which would be laudable, but then remembered that excessively slow movement is a Tim Albery trademark. In Albery's Der fliegende Holländer (ROH, 2009) , Bryn Terfel spent much of the time appearing to pull a long rope suspended diagonally across the stage. (An echo of this rope appears in this Tannhäuser too.) Grimness is an Albery thing, whatever the opera or the singer, and often it works. Obviously directors have an individual language, as all artists do, but grim for its own sake can become tedious if it holds up dramatic flow.
Tannhäuser is not a romantic hero. He left Wartburg in a pique and gave in whole-heartedly to Venusberg's excesses. Thus Johann Botha's portrayal is psychologically accurate. Wagner's whole point is that the character is sated, almost destroyed by what he's experienced yet still has a spark of goodness that makes him worth saving. That's why Elisabeth loves him. Why redeem someone who doesn't need the help? Botha's characterization was much more subtle and true to the role and to the opera than might meet the eye. On the ear, too, he was very good, totally justifying the casting, even if his voice flagged in the final Act. Much better that Botha sings Tannhäuser with a sense of his inner complexes. This is central to the role, and to the dilemmas that face the character. It's a difficult role, and less gratifying because the big showpiece song isn't his, but Botha shows that he's a hero in his own way. Perhaps Wagner knew that the Meyerbeer crowd would never understand.
Tannhäuser might see Elisabeth as the Virgin Mary, but Elisabeth is also a woman with intense passions. Eva-Maria Westbroek's singing brings out the sexuality in the role. Westbroek's forte is bringing personality to the parts she sings, and here she turns an almost stereotype into a fully-formed human being,. A lesser singer would be trapped by the restrictions created by this costume and direction. Westbroek overcomes these obstacles by her innate artistry. Since she can transform dross to gold, her Anna Nicole might make the new show a hit.
Semyon Bychkov conducted the Royal Opera House orchestra. Very beautiful, emphasizing the lyricism in the score. The interludes uninterrupted by staging were excellent. Given Albery's valid view that Tannhäuser operates at a critical post trauma turning point, one might have hoped that Bychkov might have injected some crackling tension into the music. It's not a comfortable opera. Wagner declares against Venus, after all.
At the end, another typical Albery touch. In his Der fliegende Holländer, the Dutchman's haunting portrait was replaced by a toy boat. That's acceptable, as an indication of Senta's fantasist immaturity. In this production there's no papal staff to burst into leaf. Instead a small boy, seated on the same chair Tannhäuser sat in, playing with what looks like a toy Xmas tree. Even if it's supposed to be symbolic, it's absurd. Reductionism can work extremely well in opera, but badly done it turns to trivia.
HERE is the review in Opera Today, with more photos. Please also see my new piece on the interpretation of Tannhäuser, its meaning and images. I've since added several more posts on this opera and its characters. Please explore - understanding the opera helps assessing the performance. It's an opera that's easily misunderstood. All photos are copyright Clive Barda 2010, details embedded. Please also see my review of the Wagner Rienzi DVD