Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House review: a strangely slow kind of hedonism


replicated proscenium with red and gold Royal Opera House curtains is the entrance to the erotic world of the Venusberg in Tim Albery’s revitalized production of Tannhäuser. Seated in a chair placed to glimpse these hedonistic delights is a succession of men dressed formally as for the opera. All of us – patrons, ushers, critics – are potential customers. There is a first time for everything. Only in this production is rarely the excess of sensuality that the disillusioned knight Tannhäuser is so eager to escape.

Certainly, for my money, Jasmin Vardimon’s writhing-limb choreography provides a truly thrilling Bacchanale – although these things are admittedly subjective. But the next scene for Venus and Tannhäuser, even in the Parisian version which gives us the more voluptuous elaboration of the goddess of love Wagner produced in the aftermath of Tristan und Isolde, lacks so much passion that it is all too easy to empathize with The Boredom of Tannhäuser. This was only partly because Stefan Vinke had to be replaced a few hours beforehand by Norbert Ernst, who sang from the side while Vinke walked the part. All credit to Ernst in this most demanding role, but he’s not the most exciting of tenors.

The problem lies in Albery’s production (sleek but effective designed by Michael Levine), conceived in 2010 for the late clarion singer Johan Botha, whose physical immobility required perching points around the stage. Inertia was remarkably factored into production. Ekaterina Gubanova is an experienced Venus, but she made little impression here. Only Gerald Finley, who arrived as Wolfram with fellow minstrels, brought a little life to it, Mika Kares contributed a sonorous landgrave.

Gerald Finley and Lise Davidson

/ ROH/Clive Barda

For the Wartburg scene in Act II, we find ourselves in an Eastern European war zone, the courtly guests becoming Kalashnikov-wearing patriots. Bombings or perhaps their own religious fundamentalism have wrecked the proscenium, somewhat undermining Elisabeth’s joyous hymn in the singing hall. Either she trades in memories or she has a developed sense of irony. Vocally, Lise Davidsen does not disappoint, at least not when her intervention at the climax, when the whole community embraces the dissolute Tannhäuser, falls victim to this weak staging.

A Wagnerian redemption at last in Act III, with Finley’s emotive rendition of The Song to the Evening Star and Davidsen’s magnificently pronounced Prayer to the Virgin, both enhanced by the conscious conducting of Sebastian Weigle, who had elsewhere seemed labored and passionless. The patriots, too, have left their guns behind, and there is a life-affirming hope for the future with a child sitting in the chair staring not at a filthy Venusberg, but at the green shoots of a new age.

With the ROH choir in lusty voice, it’s a touching ending, but it barely makes up for the unforgivably slow stage action of the first two acts. At the end of his life, Wagner thought he owed the world another Tannhäuser. The same can be said of Covent Garden.

Royal Opera House, until February 16; roh.org.uk

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