Tannhäuser, Royal Opera Residence, London — ‘Gerhaher towers above every person else’

It doesn’t all have to boil down to sex. In fact, you could read Wagner’s Tannhäuser as a metaphor for any type of internal struggle, in which instinct and intention are diametrically opposed. Still, the tension specifically among sensual gratification and spiritual nourishment was an obsession for Wagner, and gives the motor of this 1845 opera. One ought, at least, to acknowledge it.

Instead, director Tim Albery has made a mêlée of suggestions that allows the tension to dissipate. More’s the pity due to the fact his revived production, new at Covent Garden in 2010, starts promisingly, with an inspired take on the Venusberg scene. Jasmin Vardimon’s imaginative choreography capitalises on the music’s erotic charge and final results in a ballet full of orgiastic fervour. Meanwhile a replica of the Covent Garden proscenium, symbolising Tannhäuser’s artistry, hovers more than this vision: the worlds of the artist and the sexually licentious are cleverly entwined.

But what of that other globe, inhabited by Tannhäuser’s actual enjoy? Wartburg is a pile of rubble, an eastern European war zone, where Elisabeth dons a refugee’s coat and scarf, and the Landgrave’s followers brandish AK-47s. On one particular level the austerity functions, as a contrast to the excesses of Venus’s lair. But, in this context, how are we to buy into the quaint formality of the song contest? Or to believe in the crowd’s shock at Tannhäuser’s debauchery? Albery and his designers Michael Levine and Jon Morrell have generated nonsense.

In the pit Hartmut Haenchen does a lot to atone, permitting the score to blossom progressively but completely, although chorus director Renato Balsadonna gets robust results from the Royal Opera Chorus. Not all the musical performances are so consistent: Peter Seiffert is a frustratingly wooden Tannhäuser, with a voice that, in this ruthlessly demanding role, sounds like frayed leather. Emma Bell brings considerably a lot more subtlety to Elisabeth, even if she is eclipsed by Sophie Koch’s smouldering Venus.

But one particular singer towers above every person else: Christian Gerhaher, whose Wolfram — tender and honey-toned — transforms the Royal Opera Residence into an intimate salon. He filled it with a whisper.

To Could 15, roh.org.uk

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Section: Arts