Wartburg Castle has fallen on hard times in Tim Albery's dark vision of Richard Wagner's opera "Tannhaeuser." The people are at war, and their fortress lies in ruins.
His new staging, which opened Saturday at the Royal Opera House in London, is an engrossing production with a fine cast, highlighted by baritone Christian Gerhaher in a sensational debut.
The story focuses on the struggle between passion and morality within the title character, whom Wagner based on a real 13th century singer and poet.
Tannhaeuser has strayed into the Venusberg, realm of the goddess of love. But tiring of endless sensual pleasure, he tries to return to his old life and his virginal sweetheart, Elisabeth. When the populace find out where he has been, they banish him.
Seeking redemption on a pilgrimage to Rome, he is rebuffed by the pope, who declares that Tannhaeuser can no more be forgiven than his staff can grow new leaves. Elisabeth, praying for a miracle, dies of a broken heart and, sure enough, the staff sprouts greenery.
The opera premiered in Dresden in 1845, but Wagner kept revising it.
The version performed here was done for the Paris Opera, where a ballet was a required part of the entertainment — preferably in Act 2, so well-fed Parisians could arrive late and leave early. Wagner infuriated them by making his ballet a bacchanal that immediately follows the overture.
For Covent Garden, Jasmin Vardimon has choreographed an orgy with dancers in formal wear chasing each other over a long dinner table, gradually stripping down as the music grows in intensity. It sounds silly but it's actually quite sexy.
Albery and set designer Michael Levine stage this scene as a theatrical entertainment put on for Tannhaeuser's amusement, and they frame it with a smaller version of the Royal Opera House proscenium.
The moment Tannhaeuser rejects Venus' caresses and is transported back to the valley near his home, we know something has gone seriously wrong. Venus predicted he would never find peace if he left her, and it turns out to be true: The landscape is bleak, and his former cronies enter not as prosperous knights but as guerrillas at war, pursuing an enemy soldier.
In Act 2, rubble from the wrecked proscenium strews the stage, the remnants of the Minstrels' Hall in the Wartburg castle, where Tannhaeuser takes part in a song contest. Often staged as merely a colorful pageant, the competition gains new urgency in Albery's staging, where men and women living amid danger desperately keep alive a ritual of their past lives.
Only at the end of Act 3, after the miracle, does peace seem to return, with the men putting away their weapons and light breaking through onto the stage.
In the title role, tenor Johan Botha was as masterful vocally as he was problematic dramatically. Blessed with a bright, heroic sound, Botha soared past the many hurdles in one of Wagner's most taxing roles, tiring slightly only toward the end. But his performance was compromised by his inability to move freely or to stand upright for long periods. Seeing him so frequently sit or lean on a chair undercut his plausibility, just as happened with Luciano Pavarotti in his later years.
No such limitations affected the two women in his life. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster in a slinky black evening gown was an alluring Venus, her effectiveness marred only by some troublesome high notes.
As the pure Elisabeth, Eva-Maria Westbroek radiated warmth and tenderness, and her surging soprano sound called to mind a young Leonie Rysanek.
In the role of Wolfram, Tannhaeuser's faithful friend who also loves Elisabeth, Gerhaher drew the biggest cheers during curtain calls, and deservedly so. In his "Song to the Evening Star" and other solos, he revealed a voice of almost unearthly beauty and flexibility. Gerhaher has made much of his career as a singer of "lieder" or art songs, and it showed in his crisp diction and an ability to vary his sound from a hushed whisper to a climactic high note with no loss of tonal purity.
Bass Christof Fischesser brought nobility and impressive power to the role of the Landgrave, Elisabeth's uncle.
Semyon Bychkov conducted the orchestra in a spirited performance.
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