Going for a song

Covent Garden's Tannhäuser, reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 7 January 2011

Tannhäuser is often mistakenly described as a naive work. What is true is that each version of the opera is fraught with dramatic, musical and practical problems. It is also conceivable that, between the work’s troubled Dresden premiere in 1845, its disastrous visit to Paris in 1861, and the composer’s confession to Cosima in 1883, twenty days before his death, that he still “owes the world a Tannhäuser”, Wagner ultimately confronted these problems with more success in the other works which it so strongly foreshadows, notably Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal.

The confusion stems from the idea at the heart of the opera: the dichotomy between sensual and sexual delight, represented by the Venusberg, and spiritual and moral nourishment, represented by the Wartburg community and enshrined, above all, in the figure of Elisabeth. The opera is often taken to represent a simple choice between the two, to be made by the work’s eponymous hero in the interests of art. If this was indeed what the opera amounted to, then the charge of naivety could be made to stick, but as Wagner’s libretto and stage directions make clear, the choice facing Tannhäuser is a false one. The division between erotic and moral love, between sympathy and sexual desire, is one which should never have come about; and the catastrophic effects of it having done so – above all, according to Wagner, as a result of church teaching – are plain to see. Both Venus’s decadent underworld and the pious see of Herrmann, Landgrave of Thuringia, are closed societies whose greatest fear is also what secretly they long for most. Venus falls in love with Tannhäuser because his song is the one thing that can arouse in her feelings of pity, just as Elisabeth loves him because she understands that his love exceeds the crippled pieties of his rivals.

In the sense that Wagner came to understand his mission in terms of healing this rift in German society, with the theatre as his primary tool, Tannhäuser might be thought of as his most autobiographical opera; an atypically modest one, too, if we consider that Tannhäuser himself is cast as a failure: he fails both Venus and Elisabeth, just as fails in his efforts to communicate what he has learned from his experiences of loving both; he succeeds merely in disrupting rather than winning the central song contest, fluffing in public the lines he delivered so successfully in private in the previous act. Even his final apotheosis and scrambled redemption do nothing to heal the rift, but rather underline Elisabeth’s saintliness and the withdrawal of beauty from the physical world.

In his new production for Covent Garden, the first seen at the Royal Opera since the retirement of Elijah Moshinsky’s short-lived staging in 1987, Tim Albery uses the idea of the theatre itself as the conceptual key to Wagner’s dichotomy. It is an appropriate device, which makes up for what it lacks in originality by allowing the audience to take the work as seriously as it was intended. Michael Levine’s set, with lighting by David Finn, consists primarily of a vast black box, vaguely reminiscent of Wieland Wagner’s minimalist Bayreuth sets and bleakly suggestive of an empty theatre’s untapped possibilities. The main detail comes from a copy of the Royal Opera House’s gilded proscenium arch, complete with curtains, which is used as the frame for the Venusberg ballet and opening scene. In the second act, the arch has been reduced to a kind of sacred ruin, its uneven ground reverently trod by the Thuringians, here cast by Albery as a kind of contemporary renegade army whose heroes wear motheaten evening dress under their dusty greatcoats. By the third act, a scattering of rubble and dust is all that remains of the theatre.

The ballet, added by Wagner to satisfy Parisian tradition, begins earlier than is usual, but to good effect since it redresses the dramatic imbalance further, Jasmin Vardimon’s virtuosic choreography adding considerably to the gravitational pull of the Venusberg. Men, Tannhäuser included, arrive at the theatre, only to be drawn in by the come-hither flourishes of the female dancers. The dance follows a wave motion, developing into a restless circle as the dancers pursue each other round a spinning table, shedding clothing on the way. Though visually exciting, it doesn’t take long before the constant circular motion reveals itself to be driven by the same spiritual emptiness which prompts Tannhäuser to return to Thuringia.

The motion of the ballet contrasts strongly with the static quality of the remainder of Albery’s production. Johan Botha, in the lead role, is a monumental figure. Both he and Michaela Schuster’s imperious Venus disappear, luckily, for the duration of the ballet, but their first-act duet gives the impression less of two lovers taking awkward leave of each other than of two mountains driven apart by tectonic plates. A certain monumentalism also characterizes Semyon Bychkov’s approach to the score. After his success with Lohengrin last year, he has clearly won the trust of the Royal Opera orchestra, who followed his well-balanced but often perilously slow pace with an impressively even beauty of tone. Credit, too, should go to the singers who showed the same steadiness. Botha is one of the few tenors who can approach the role with confidence, but even he began to show signs of wear in the final act. The soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who sang Elsa in Bychkov’s Lohengrin, gave a radiant but appropriately distant quality to the role of Elisabeth. The loudest cheers on the opening night, however, were for the baritone Christian Gerhaher, whose “Blick’ ich umher” was so sustained and focused that one wondered at times why Elisabeth didn’t simply abandon her hopes for Tannhäuser and settle down with Wolfram instead.

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